Calgary

Nebraska landowners grill TransCanada over Keystone pipeline

An attorney for Nebraska landowners who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline grilled one of the project's lead executives on Monday in a testy legal hearing in Lincoln, Neb. A state commission is reviewing the proposal.

Concern expressed over who would pay for cleanup and restoration in the event of a spill

Tony Palmer, TransCanada senior vice-president, testifies before the Nebraska Public Service Commission in Lincoln, Neb., on Monday. The Nebraska Public Service Commission is holding a five-day public hearing to decide whether to approve TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. (The Associated Press)

An attorney for Nebraska landowners who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline grilled one of the project's lead executives on Monday in a testy legal hearing in Lincoln, Neb., before a state commission that is reviewing the proposal.

The hearing before the Nebraska Public Service Commission is the last major regulatory hurdle pipeline developer TransCanada faces in its nine-year quest to complete the $8-billion US pipeline.

Attorney Dave Domina told CBC News that Albertans should be able to relate to the concerns of the Nebraska landowners.

"Nebraska's concerns are a lot like the Canadian people who live on the prairie would have for concerns," he said. "The prairie is so fragile. The land, the water, is so fragile, the population pretty sparse, that when there is a threat to it, it really does require an intelligent and comprehensive reponse."

Attorney Dave Domina gestures as he questions Tony Palmer, TransCanada senior vice-president, unseen, who testified before the Nebraska Public Service Commission in Lincoln, Neb., on Monday. (The Associated Press)

Domina said the landowners want the commission to be focused on how to protect Nebraska.

"If they're going to grant this route, then we're concerned about how long the easement should last, the obligation to remove the expended pipeline at the end of its useful service, the method by which they are protected from risks or liabilities, and last and frankly least, the compensation they're paid for the intrusion on their property," he said.

TransCanada executive faces questions

On Monday, Domina questioned TransCanada executive Tony Palmer about whether the company would cover cleanup and restoration costs in the event of a spill and remove the pipeline once it's no longer in use.

Domina also questioned whether TransCanada would agree to limits on how long the pipeline would remain in the ground if it's approved, an idea Palmer rejected.

"The commission should know that this route, if they want to permit it, doesn't have to be perpetual," Domina said. "It can be time-limited so the land can go back to the families."

Palmer said the company would pay for cleanup and restoration costs but might seek compensation from anyone who damages the pipeline. He said it's "very rare" to remove pipelines that have outlived their useful life, but some decommissioned pipelines are filled with an inert gas to keep them from corroding.

Pipeline could last 50 years

Palmer acknowledged under questioning that the company has not estimated the cost of removing the pipeline from the ground. TransCanada could use the pipeline for more than 20 years, but if well maintained, it should last at least 50, Palmer said.

"We fully expect this pipeline can provide service well beyond the commercial contract," Palmer said.

Domina also alluded to TransCanada's Bison Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that ruptured outside of Gillette, Wyoming, in 2011, six months after it went into service. A few months prior to the explosion, the company had touted that pipeline for its adherence to strict safety standards.

James Powers, an attorney for TransCanada, objected to the statement and the commission's hearing officer declined to allow it.

The 1,900-kilometre crude oil pipeline has faced relentless criticism from environmental groups, Native American tribes and a well-organized minority of Nebraska landowners who don't want the project cutting through their property. Business groups and some unions support the Keystone XL, saying it will provide jobs and property tax revenue for local governments.

Landowners who object to the Keystone XL pipeline being built through their property sit in the front row as they listen to testimony before the Nebraska Public Service Commission in Lincoln, Neb., on Monday. (The Associated Press)

The commission will decide whether to grant Calgary-based TransCanada's application for route approval for the pipeline through Nebraska, allowing the company to gain access to holdout landowners' property through eminent domain laws.

The hearing at a Lincoln hotel, which could run as long as five days, drew about 60 people on Monday.

A digital billboard truck circled the block outside, flashing anti-pipeline messages.

"We appreciate that we're not all going to agree on certain things," Matthew John, communications specialist with TransCanda, told CBC News regarding the protests. "I think it's important that everyone has a voice and that everyone has an opportunity to participate."

He noted that TransCanada's message to Nebraskans is that the pipeline means 4,400 direct and indirect jobs during the construction, tens of millions in taxes, and "a stable, secure supply of crude oil for North America."

TransCanada plans to call 10 witnesses during the hearing and there are about a half dozen expert witnesses.

"The landowners will probably offer evidence from about 35 persons but they will mostly be in writing without live testimony," Domina said. "There will be some live testimony but not a lot."

With files from Genevieve Normand, CBC News

now