Pipeline activists get to take one final kick at Keystone XL Wednesday as the Nebraska Public Service Commission starts the public portion of its review into the project’s contentious route through the state.

It’s one of two imminent tests of the clout of the anti pipeline movement in the post-Obama era. The other is the British Columbia election next week. A defeat of Liberal Christy Clark May 9 by the left-leaning NDP could mean big trouble for the TransMountain oil pipeline expansion. It’s a close race and the NDP, led by John Horgan, has promised to “use every tool in our toolbox” to stop the Kinder Morgan project.

In Nebraska, Keystone XL proponent TransCanada Corp. needs to get a route approved before it can move ahead with construction of the oilsands pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would meet with the already constructed southern portion of KXL.

It’s the last hurdle for the $8-billion project, which received a presidential permit from U.S. President Donald Trump in March that reversed Barack Obama’s previous rejection, and has secured all other approvals from authorities in Canada and the U.S.

A large crowd of activists is expected to participate in Wednesday’s daylong public meeting in York, Nebraska. Among them are Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club’s Nebraska chapter, which chartered buses to transport opponents from Omaha, Lincoln and the Atkinson areas.

“We’re trying to get people amped up about this,” Graham Jordison, a Lincoln-based community organizer with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign, told the Lincoln Star Journal this week. “This is one of our last chances to make our voices heard.”

The commission said more public meetings could be held along the pipeline route. The formal public hearings into TransCanada’s 403-page application will be held Aug. 7 to Aug. 11 in Lincoln.

There is no role at this week’s event for TransCanada, which will defend its case in the formal hearings. Still, spokesman Terry Cunha said the company hopes to see “a balanced discussion where people are free to express themselves, either for or against the project.”

The scope of the commission’s review is narrow and its timeline tight.

Its mandate is to decide whether the proposed route is in the public interest, or whether there are better options. Among its considerations is “the impact of the major oil pipeline on the orderly development of the area around the proposed route.”

The commission has already warned that it is prohibited under the Major Oil Siting Act “from evaluating safety considerations, including the safety as to the design, installation, inspection, emergency plans and procedures, testing, construction, extension, operation, replacement, maintenance, and risk or impact of spills or leaks from the major oil pipeline,” – all key topics used by pipeline activists to bolster their arguments.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty ImagesOpponents of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines hold a rally as they protest President Donald Trump's executive orders advancing their construction

But that won’t stop opponents from using the opportunity to the fullest. The opposition is composed of a minority of landowners impacted by the project, backed and amplified by environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, 350.org and Oil Change International, and aboriginal groups. The front has proven a formidable opponent and has helped lengthen KXL’s overall regulatory process to nine years and counting.

“The commissioners know it is game time, and everybody is looking,” leading opponent Jane Kleeb, Nebraska’s Democratic party chair and head of the conservation group Bold Alliance, told Reuters.

Opponents are expected to argue KXL would threaten prime farming and grazing lands, offer only a small number of mainly temporary jobs, and play up that TransCanada is a foreign company that would seize American private property.

But supporters are no pushovers. They include the Republican Governor, Pete Ricketts, most of the state’s senators, labour unions and the chamber of commerce.

For its part, TransCanada argues in its application that the route it proposes avoids the sensitive Sandhills region and many areas of fragile soils in Northern Nebraska.

“It is significant that the preferred route has been the subject of multiple reviews and evaluations by federal and state agencies, extensive public input, and the governor’s approval,” TransCanada says.

Alternative routes do not provide a distinct environmental advantage, it says.

In a statement Feb. 17, when TransCanada submitted the application, CEO Russ Girling said the proposed route involved consultation with landowners along the pipeline corridor, where more than 90 per cent have signed voluntary easements to construct Keystone XL.

The company also says the pipeline would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in employee earnings in Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana  during construction, and once operating will provide millions of dollars annually in local tax revenues.

With a Presidential permit in hand, TransCanada has every reason to be optimistic. But with so many setbacks over the years, and politics so unpredictable, the only certainty about this final KXL hurdle is that there is a finish line. The commission is expected to hand down a decision by Nov. 23.

Financial Post

ccattaneo@nationalpost.com

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