LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman approved a new route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline on Tuesday that avoids the state’s environmentally sensitive Sandhills region.
The Republican governor sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying he would allow the pipeline to proceed through his state.
His announcement came one day after Obama promised in his inauguration speech to tackle climate change during his second term. Pipeline opponents have urged the president to deny a federal permit for the project, which is required because the Canada-to-Texas pipeline crosses an international border. Obama rejected the original proposal for the pipeline last year and later agreed to let construction begin on a southern leg of the project starting in Cushing, Okla.
The project has faced some of its strongest resistance in Nebraska from a coalition of landowners and environmental groups that say it would contaminate the Ogallala aquifer, a massive groundwater supply. Canadian pipeline developer TransCanada and some unions say the project is safe and will create thousands of jobs.
TransCanada’s pipeline is designed to carry tar sands oil from Canada across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The company also has proposed connecting it to the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota.
The original Nebraska route would have run the pipeline through a region of erodible, grass-covered sand dunes known as the Sandhills. Heineman said in his letter that the new, 195-mile route through Nebraska avoids the Sandhills but would still cross over a small part of the aquifer.
The pipeline’s most vocal critics remain firmly opposed to the project.
“Gov. Heineman just performed one of the biggest flip-flops that we’ve seen in Nebraska political history,” said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the group Bold Nebraska.
Heineman has previously said he would oppose any pipeline route that endangered the aquifer. In his letter to federal officials, Heineman said any spills along the new route would be localized, and any cleanup responsibilities would fall to TransCanada.
Pipeline opponents are still challenging a Nebraska pipeline-siting law that was written as part of a deal to let state officials review the project. A judge has allowed the lawsuit to proceed in court.