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The controversial Keystone XL pipeline just cleared a major hurdle in Nebraska

Environmental activists are gearing up for another legal fight.

GASCOYNE, ND - OCTOBER 14:  Miles of unused pipe, prepared for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, sit in a lot on October 14, 2014 outside Gascoyne, North Dakota.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Miles of unused pipe, prepared for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, sit in a lot outside Gascoyne, North Dakota.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission on Monday voted 3-2 in a major ruling to approve an alternative route of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would run through the state.

The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed 1,700-mile extension of the Keystone pipeline to deliver 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries. The extension would cross parts of Montana and South Dakota before joining existing pipelines in Nebraska.

The commission, composed of four Republicans and one Democrat, has with the ruling lifted a key hurdle to the pipeline’s construction, which environmental and Native American activists have opposed for years.

President Obama blocked the pipeline in 2015. But in March, President Trump helped it along with an executive order that gave the company behind the pipeline, TransCanada, permission to build across the US-Canada border.

Since then, TransCanada has been waiting on permits and approval from Montana, South Dakota, and especially Nebraska for the project to move forward.

The commission did not approve TransCanada’s preferred route but instead signed off on a longer path called the Mainline Alternative Route that would be less disruptive because it more closely follows existing pipelines in Nebraska. The company will now be required to get easements from landowners along the alternative route, according to the Globe and Mail.

Before Monday’s decision, Commissioner Crystal Rhoades, who voted “no,” noted that the alternative route had not been subject to the same scrutiny as the initial proposed route and many property holders could be caught off guard.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline routes through Nebraska.
Nebraska Public Service Commission

“There at least 40 landowners along this route how may not even know they are in this pipeline’s path,” she said.

The newly approved Nebraska route also crosses over the Ogallala Aquifer, which irrigates one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle in the United States. Rhoades added that there was no evidence provided that any of the jobs created by this project accrue to Nebraska, and the state’s revenue department was inconclusive about whether it would be a net positive for the state’s finances.

TransCanada has said that the pipeline would add $3.4 billion to the US gross domestic product. Republicans, some Democrats, labor unions, and the oil industry have all voiced support for the project.

However, environmental groups are gearing up to challenge the pipeline in state courts to further delay the project. In recent years, Keystone XL has become rallying cry for them — activists saw Obama’s rejection of it in 2015 as a key win, and the first time an energy project was rejected for its impact on global warming.

“Despite today’s decision, the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is not over and we will see them in court,” said Ben Schreiber, a political strategist at Friends of the Earth, in a statement.

South Dakota and Montana have already issued approvals for the pipeline.

Nebraska’s approval comes after a segment of the Keystone pipeline, also owned by TransCanada, spilled 5,000 barrels of oil last week in South Dakota.

But the spill did not factor into the commission’s decision, since pipeline safety is a federal matter and is outside the purview of the commission under state law.

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