Nebraska’s highest court approved the Keystone XL oil pipeline’s planned path through that state on Friday, resolving a permitting battle that has stretched on for more than a decade as the project became a proxy for a national debate between environmentalists and the energy industry.
Keystone XL, which would carry crude oil from Canada to southern Nebraska, has been the subject of political maneuvering and litigation since it was proposed in 2008. The project, which was rejected by the Obama administration, was revived under President Donald Trump.
Many Republican politicians and labor groups see Keystone XL as an economic boon, a way to create jobs and satisfy the world’s demand for oil. But for environmentalists and some Native Americans and farmers along the planned route, the pipeline is seen as a grave threat to the warming climate and to fertile land it would run through.
“At some point in our country’s history, the property rights of farmers and the sovereign rights of tribal nations have to trump big oil land grabs,” said Jane Kleeb, the longtime leader of the Keystone XL opposition in Nebraska and the chairwoman of the state’s Democratic Party.
The Nebraska Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday was not the final word on the pipeline. A federal lawsuit in Montana still seeks to block construction, and several landowners along the route have refused to sign easements. Protesters, including from Native American tribes in Nebraska and South Dakota, have promised to mobilize if construction begins.
The ruling was significant nonetheless.
“This comprehensive decision not only clears a big legal hurdle for this particular pipeline — it signals that a workable process exists in Nebraska for the approval of future major energy infrastructure projects,” said Dave Lopez, who defended the pipeline route before the state Supreme Court in his former role as Nebraska’s deputy solicitor general.
For years, Nebraska, a deeply conservative state, has been the surprising center of opposition to Keystone XL. It was in Nebraska that a politically diverse array of farmers, Native Americans and environmentalists first elevated the pipeline into the national spotlight. Willie Nelson and Neil Young held a concert in a Nebraska cornfield to rally opposition to the project. In Nebraska, opponents pushed for changes to the route and slowed construction with efforts in the courts and in the government regulatory process.
Critics of pipelines in other places have used similar tactics in the years since.
Opponents of the Keystone XL project have voiced hope of delaying construction until after the 2020 presidential election. Some Democratic candidates have vowed to oppose the pipeline if they unseat Trump.
The latest ruling came after opponents challenged a route approved by Nebraska regulators in 2017. Though those regulators narrowly voted to allow construction, they rejected the pipeline company’s preferred route and approved an alternate path through the state that had received far less examination. A lawsuit asserted that the route had been approved in error.
The company behind the project, TC Energy, which until recently was called TransCanada, has been stuck in a holding pattern for years. Company officials have insisted they remained committed to Keystone XL’s construction even as delays continue to mount and as another construction season has come and gone.
“The Supreme Court decision is another important step as we advance towards building this vital energy infrastructure project,” said Russ Girling, TC Energy’s president and chief executive, in a statement. A company spokesman did not answer a list of questions about the project’s status and a potential construction timeline.
Supporters of Keystone XL, including some political leaders and business groups in Nebraska, have focused on construction jobs the pipeline would create and have noted that transporting oil by pipeline is safer than by rail or truck.
Opponents have questioned the wisdom of building another oil pipeline given the effects of climate change, and have voiced concern about the danger a spill — such as one in 2017 on a pipeline operated by the same company — would pose to farmland and groundwater.
“I find this loss devastating as a landowner,” said Jeanne Crumly, a farmer on the route in northern Nebraska. She added: “We will remain united and vigilant in our resistance.”