The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has been waged on a national scale since the massive construction project was first proposed six years ago. And, as the 114th Congress gets underway, the proposal to transport 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries has been pushed to the forefront of public discussion about jobs, climate change, and environmental policy.
While the Senate debates legislation to approve the project, the company that has proposed to build the pipeline, TransCanada, filed legal papers in nine Nebraska counties. The company is seeking to seize via eminent domain the property of homeowners along the route of the pipeline who have held out on giving TransCanada permission to build.
"Eminent domain is a last resort and our first priority is always to negotiate voluntary agreements with landowners," the company said in a statement. "However, where needed, eminent domain allows necessary commodities like food, oil, natural gas, and power to have the safe transportation corridors needed to get to where they are used: in homes, factories and the 250 million vehicles that need to start up each day in America."
The company's legal move hit a deep nerve among those opposed to the project.
"Nobody thinks that a foreign corporation should be able to use eminent domain on American landowners for a private pipeline," Jane Kleeb, Director of Bold Nebraska, a grassroots organization that works with landowners who oppose the pipeline, told VICE News. "There's already lots of opposition against eminent domain period, but when you add in that it's for a private project from a foreign corporation, it gets people's backs up."
One of those people is Rick Hammond. After opposition from him and other Nebraska landowners, TransCanada altered the route of the pipeline. It's no longer proposed to travel through his property, but the company would like to lay pipe through his sister-in-law's 160 acres.
"No matter what they say, the land is never the same," Hammond told VICE News. "They flood the TV with ads for Keystone XL and they're always playing patriotic music in the background, and it's like this product, this tar sludge, is not even for us."
Historically, use of eminent domain has generally been reserved for the government and for "public use" purposes. Several landowners have filed suit against TransCanada, claiming that the Nebraska law that allows the company to exert eminent domain is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit, which may take up to two years to reach a conclusion, asks the state Supreme Court to put a hold on TransCanada's eminent domain proceedings until the constitutionality of the law is settled.
Nebraska is the last state with landowners who have refused to reach a deal with the company.
'If it leaks for one hour, the cleanup expense is going to wipe out any average Nebraska family.'
The company leases leave landowners open to disputes over the financial responsibility of cleaning up any spills that might occur, David Domina, an attorney representing the landowners, said.
"If it leaks for one hour, the cleanup expense is going to wipe out any average Nebraska family," Domina told VICE News. "It's just a preposterous policy."
Opponents argue that the threat of spills and the continued reliance on fossil fuels are dangerous for the environment. For anyone living along the pipeline's route, they say, economic benefits are slim because it's Canadian oil and will be sold on the international market.
"Most people just look at it on a surface level of, 'That's going to lower my cost of gas,'" Hammond told VICE News. "There's a heck of a lot more to it than that, even beside the main issue of global warming. This is the dirtiest crap. It's like we're wringing the last out of a bad deal."
A recent pipeline rupture in Montana has highlighted the risks associated with pipelines that transport fossil fuels. Forty thousand gallons of oil spilled into the Yellowstone River on Saturday, the second time in four years that a pipeline accident had contaminated its waters.
The House of Representatives voted on January 9th to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Senate is currently debating a similar proposal. President Obama has said he will veto legislation that attempts to move the pipeline forward prior to completion of an Executive Branch evaluation of the project.
On Wednesday, presumed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told an audience in Canada that she would not express an opinion on the project until the President's review was completed.
"We have differences and you won't get me to talk about Keystone because I have steadily made clear that I'm not going to express an opinion," Clinton said, speaking in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "It is in our process and that's where it belongs."
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