Once again, Keystone XL's fate lies in Nebraska's hands

Five months after being approved by the U.S. government, TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline will once again be the focus of discussions this week at the project's public hearings in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Let the battle begin — Keystone XL goes to public hearings in Nebraska this week

Welder Brent Mauldin, centre, works on construction of the Gulf Coast Project pipeline in Prague, Oklahoma, in this file photo from March 11, 2013. The Gulf Coast Project is part of the Keystone Pipeline Project. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Five months after being approved by the U.S. government, TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline will once again be the focus of discussions this week at the project's public hearings in Lincoln, Nebraska.​

While TransCanada has been given a green light to proceed by the governments of Canada and the United States, it still requires licenses from the three U.S. states where its pipeline is to pass.

Montana and South Dakota have already approved the route, which means that the future of the project rests with Nebraska. The state's Public Service Commission has until the fall to decide whether Keystone XL is in the interest of the Nebraska public.

For the defenders of Keystone XL, this is the finish line of a race that began in July 2008. This is the last step, or the missing piece of the puzzle.

The Keystone XL pipeline would bring oil from Hardisty, Alta., to Steele City, Neb. One of the key risks cited in this project, the political risk in the U.S. jurisdiction, where much of the pipeline is located, is largely out of control of the Alberta government. (Natalie Holdway/CBC)

If Nebraska approves the pipeline, TransCanada will have the permits to proceed. It will be able to construct a 1,900-kilometre underground pipe to transport 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to American refineries near Houston, Texas.

Conversely, for opponents of the project, Nebraska is the final battleground, the last hope to block the project before the first official shovelful of earth is turned.

In an e-mail exchange with CBC News, TransCanada indicated that it had reached an agreement with the vast majority of landowners along the Nebraska route, with more than 90 per cent signing land acquisition agreements.

Detractors and proponents alike will benefit from public hearings this week where they can make their voices heard.

Opponents are particularly concerned about oil spills, which would jeopardize the ecosystem of this Midwestern region, where the economy relies heavily on agriculture.

A pipeline still needed?

Over the past year, two oil pipeline projects have been approved in Canada: the replacement of Enbridge Line 3 and the expansion of the TransMountain pipeline owned by Kinder Morgan in British Columbia. In this context, some question whether Alberta oil producers need more pipelines.

Joseph Doucet of the University of Alberta says he thinks there is still a need for Keystone XL. (Radio-Canada)

Joseph Doucet, energy specialist and dean of the faculty of administration at the University of Alberta, says the "Keystone XL project still has its place."

Doucet says he believes that with the increase in Alberta's oil production, the industry "needs 700,000, 800,000 or perhaps even one million barrels per day of additional capacity for transportation."

However, he says these different oil pipelines from Alberta make the need less urgent for the Energy East pipeline, which is also very controversial

The public hearings of Keystone XL will be held until Friday before the Public Service Commission of Nebraska.

Five elected commissioners will hear the testimony under the chairmanship of a former Nebraska judge.

Under the U.S. Pipeline Act, the Commission has 210 days after the granting of a presidential permit to make its decision.

As the Trump administration gave the green light to Keystone XL in March, the Commission has until Oct. 23 to rule, more than nine years after the first submission of the project.