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Keystone XL Becomes a Hot Potato Again

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The proposed Keystone XL route will now avoid the Nebraska Sandhills (above), an environmentally sensitive area that posed hurdles for the project. (Photograph by Catherine Cook/Flickr)

A proposed new route for the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska has sparked renewed debate over whether it is environmentally safe — and it could be early next year before a final decision is made on the project.

Republican lawmakers tried to expedite the TransCanada pipeline extension’s approval this week, attempting to link the project to transportation legislation.

“This is a jobs and infrastructure bill,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, reported Bloomberg. “Keystone is the ultimate jobs and infrastructure project.”

While the company and its supporters argue that the route in its new application to the State Department is environmentally friendly and would create thousands of jobs, critics still don’t like it, saying it still threatens the same areas.

TransCanada’s previous application for Keystone XL, which would carry oil from western Canada to Nebraska and on to the Gulf Coast, was rejected by President Barack Obama in January. The decision has to go through the State Department because the pipeline crosses an international border.

Although much of the 1,661-mile Keystone pipeline has been approved, the portion that crossed the Sandhills of Nebraska was not approved because of concerns over the risk to the environmentally sensitive grasslands. Also at issue is the underlying Ogallala aquifer, one of the largest in North America, which provides drinking water to about 2 million people in Nebraska and seven other states. This week, TransCanada resubmitted its application with a proposed alternative route that veers to the east of the Sandhills. The pipeline would still cross the aquifer.

“Our application for a Presidential Permit builds on more than three years of environmental review already conducted for Keystone XL,” said Russ Girling, TransCanada’s president and CEO, in a news release. “It was the most comprehensive process ever for a cross-border pipeline and that work should allow our cross border permit to be processed expeditiously and a decision made once a new route in Nebraska is determined.”

But that has not been enough for the groups who oppose Keystone XL.

“The company’s ‘new’ application is nothing but a rehash, riddled with the same environmental risks that raise the same unanswered questions while providing no new rationale for why it should be built,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement.

The Nebraska group Stop Dirty Tar Sands agreed.

“Despite promises to the contrary, the proposed pipeline route still goes through the sensitive Sandhills region, threatens the Ogallala aquifer, undermines American energy security, and does nothing to ensure that the dangerous impact of tar sands will be limited or their impact on climate mitigated,” it said, according to Environment News Service.

But at least one high profile Nebraskan said he supports the pipeline extension. When asked about it this week, Warren Buffett said, “I’m not an expert, but it generally sounds like it makes sense.”

The controversial project must also go through a state review in Nebraska, which is expected to take six to nine months.