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Nebraska Backs Pipeline; Obama Back in Hot Seat

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman signed off Tuesday on the segment of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline that would run through his state, placing the onus back on the White House to reach a decision on the politically charged issue.

President Barack Obama had previously rejected an application by pipeline builder TransCanada, citing concerns about the original route through Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region. But the president did invite TransCanada to submit a new application once it had mapped out an alternative route for the pipeline, which would carry oil from the western Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries.

Nebraska’s decision will raise the pressure on Obama. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline, contending that it would result in drastic increases of greenhouse gas emissions, and they see Obama’s decision as an early test of his commitment to take on global warming.

Industry, construction workers’ unions, many members of Congress and the Canadian government are urging approval, contending that it would create jobs and enhance energy security.

Heineman, a Republican, notified Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of his approval in a letter and asked for Nebraska’s assessment to be included in the supplemental environmental review currently under way at the State Department.

The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality found that the new route would avoid the Sand Hills area but would cross an aquifer.

“Impacts on aquifers from a release should be localized, and Keystone would be responsible for any cleanup,” Heineman said.

Pipeline construction would yield $418 million in economic benefits and bring in $16.5 million in use taxes from building materials, Heineman wrote.

According to the letter, TransCanada has assured Nebraska that it would develop an emergency response plan to deal with potential pipeline leaks and spills, offer baseline water well testing on request before construction for wells within 300 feet of the route and assume responsibility for all costs associated with state and federal cleanup requirements.

“Throughout [the] evaluation process, the concerns of Nebraskans have had a major influence on the pipeline route, the mitigation commitments and this evaluation,” Heineman said.

The oil and gas industry welcomed Heineman’s decision and urged the president to follow suit.

“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,” American Petroleum Institute Executive Vice President Marty Durbin said. “We hope President Obama will finally greenlight [the pipeline] as soon as possible and get more Americans back to work.”

GOP Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska also applauded the news. “This important project will create jobs and increase our energy supply,” he said in a written statement. “With Governor Heineman’s approval now conveyed to President Obama, it is time to give it the final green light.”

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Tuesday that his panel is likely to take up new legislation this year aimed at forcing approval of the project. And Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said the state’s approval of the route removes the last excuse for Obama to delay a final decision.

“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.

But environmentalists say new research shows that the life-cycle emissions from tar sands production are more carbon-intensive than previously thought. They argue that a tar sands industry boom is entirely dependent upon the pipeline’s construction — all the more reason for the president to reject the most recent application, environmental groups say.

The completion of the State Department’s review will trigger a comment period and consultation with other federal agencies before a final decision, probably leaving management of the final months of the process to Clinton’s expected successor, Sen. John Kerry. The Massachusetts Democrat spearheaded efforts in the 111th Congress to pass legislation that would cap carbon emissions and is a prominent supporter of international steps to combat climate change. The State Department is involved because the project would cross international boundaries.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., told reporters Tuesday that approval of the pipeline would run counter to efforts to combat climate change. “I think it would be a terrible message,” he said.

Geof Koss contributed to this report.

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