Nebraska farmers could derail Keystone XL pipeline

NELIGH, Nebraska (Reuters) -- When President Donald Trump handed TransCanada Pipeline Co. a permit for its Keystone XL pipeline last month, he said the company could now build the long-delayed and divisive project "with efficiency and with speed."

But Trump and the firm will have to get through Nebraska farmer Art Tanderup first, along with about 90 other landowners in the path of the pipeline.

They are mostly farmers and ranchers, making a last stand against the pipeline—the fate of which now rests with an obscure state regulatory board, the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

The group is fine-tuning an economic argument it hopes will resonate better in this politically conservative state than the environmental concerns that dominated the successful push to block Keystone under former President Barack Obama.

Backed by conservation groups, the Nebraska opponents plan to cast the project as a threat to prime farming and grazing lands—vital to Nebraska's economy—and a foreign company's attempt to seize American private property.

They contend the pipeline will provide mainly temporary jobs that will vanish once construction ends, and limited tax revenues that will decline over time.

They face a considerable challenge. Supporters of the pipeline as economic development include Republican Governor, Pete Ricketts, most of the state’s senators, its labor unions and chamber of commerce.

"It’s depressing to start again after Obama rejected the pipeline two years ago, but we need keep our coalition energized and strong," said Tanderup, who grows rye, corn and soybeans on his 160-acre property.

Now Tanderup and others are gearing up for another round of battle—on a decidedly more local stage, but with potentially international impact on energy firms and consumers.

The latest Keystone XL showdown underscores the increasingly well-organized and diverse resistance to pipelines nationwide, which now stretches well beyond the environmental movement.

Last year, North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux, a Native American tribe, galvanized national opposition to the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access Pipeline. Another ETP pipeline in Louisiana has drawn protests from flood protection advocates and commercial fishermen.

The Keystone XL pipeline would cut through Tanderup's family farm, near the two-story farmhouse built in the 1920s by his wife Helen's grandfather.

The Tanderups have plastered the walls with aerial photos of three "#NoKXL" crop art installations they staged from 2014 to 2016. Faded signs around the farm still advertise the concert Willie Nelson and Neil Young played here in 2014 to raise money for the protests.

The stakes for the energy industry are high as the Keystone XL combatants focus on Nebraska, especially for Canadian producers that have struggled for decades to move more of that nation's landlocked oil reserves to market. Keystone offers a path to get heavy crude from the Canada oil sands to refiners on the US Gulf Coast equipped to handle it.

TransCanada has route approval in all of the US states the line will cross except Nebraska, where the company says it has been unable to negotiate easements with landowners on about 9% of the 300-mile crossing.

So the dispute now falls to Nebraska's five-member utility commission, an elected board with independent authority over TransCanada’s proposed route.

The commission has scheduled a public hearing in May, along with a week of testimony by pipeline supporters and opponents in August. Members face a deadline set by state law to take a vote by November.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Additional reporting by Ethan Lou in Calgary; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot

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