Nebraska approves Keystone pipeline, leaving fate of project in Obama’s hands

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) on Tuesday approved a route through his state for the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, escalating Republican pressure on the White House to approve the project.

Heineman’s decision leaves the Obama administration as the last barrier in Keystone’s path, a fact that Republicans in both chambers were quick to highlight.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it’s past time for President Obama to give the project his seal of approval.

“Nebraska’s approval of a new Keystone XL pipeline route means there is no bureaucratic excuse, hurdle, or catch President Obama can use to delay this project any further. He and he alone stands in the way of tens of thousands of new jobs and energy security,” Boehner said in a statement.

Heineman sent a letter to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday informing them of his decision to greenlight the project. He said the state’s regulators have determined the proposed route from developer TransCanada would not endanger the sensitive Sandhills region, which had been a longstanding concern.

The governor also noted the economic benefits of the pipeline, and said TransCanada would be liable for any damages resulting from a spill.

The State Department has yet to decide whether to approve a cross-border permit for the pipeline, which is designed to bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.

Environmental groups strongly oppose the project and are clamoring for the president to reject it.

“I recognize all the political pressure the president faces, but with our energy security at stake and many jobs in limbo, he should find a way to say yes,” Boehner said.

A State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday that Nebraska’s action would not change State’s timeline for reviewing Keystone. State Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland indicated to reporters that the review would be completed at the end of the first quarter of 2013, at the earliest.

“We did receive a letter from the governor of Nebraska approving the route through the state of Nebraska. We will obviously take that letter and the Nebraska environmental report into consideration as we continue our federal review process,” she told reporters at a briefing.

“I think we said last year that we expected that this process was going to take us through the first quarter of 2013. So just to reiterate that, we don't anticipate being able to conclude our own review before the end of the first quarter of this year,” she said.

Republicans have joined with the oil industry in arguing the pipeline would create jobs and give the economy a boost. They say Obama’s pending decision will be a litmus test for how he deals with the oil-and-gas industry in his second term.

“It is time for the president to decide between job creation and energy production or political expediency,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Tuesday.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of Senate Republican leadership, added via Twitter, “#Nebraska just approved new route for #KeystoneXL — now the president must support Keystone jobs & increased American energy security.”

Green groups contend moving forward with Keystone would be out of step with Obama’s recent comments on climate change, including his call to action in Monday’s inaugural address.

“Given President Obama’s bold statements on climate, the simple fact of the matter is the approval of Keystone XL is irreconcilable with an effort to address climate change,” Anthony Swift, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told The Hill on Tuesday.

Environmentalists oppose Keystone due to greenhouse gas emissions from energy-intensive oil sands projects and warn of the potential for devastating spills. They have held a series of rallies outside the White House in opposition to the project, and are planning another large-scale demonstration for Feb. 17.

Obama delayed a final decision on Keystone in 2011, punting the politically thorny decision until after the presidential election.

While the environmental movement is dead-set against Keystone, many of the president’s union allies favor it, due to the large number of construction jobs it would likely create.

Swift, of the NRDC, predicted the draft assessment from State would show Keystone sets back efforts at curbing climate change. NRDC and other groups plan to push the State Department to reject the project on those grounds, he said.

Swift also said the lawmakers who have backed the project based on its economic potential will have an increasingly hard time defending it. He said extreme weather events linked to climate change — such as Hurricane Sandy and a yearlong drought in the Midwest — have exacted a financial toll greater than Keystone’s benefits.

“I think the simple fact of the matter is our case continues to get stronger with time, and that’s not the case for the proponents of this pipeline,” Swift said.

The lobbying arm of the oil-and-gas industry, however, said the clearance from Nebraska’s governor should give Obama the assurances he needs to approve the project.

“The jobs, economic benefits and energy security that come with building Keystone XL remain the driving forces behind the strong support for this project in Nebraska and across the nation,” said Marty Durbin, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute. “We hope President Obama will finally greenlight KXL as soon as possible, and get more Americans back to work.”