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Monday, December 12, 2011

Nebraskans Outraged Over Rep. Lee Terry's Keystone XL 'Fast-Track' Bill

Nebraskans Outraged Over Rep. Lee Terry's Keystone XL 'Fast-Track' Bill

"We feel like we're being totally undermined," said rancher and farmer Randy Thompson. "He might be in for a rude awakening in 2012."

Nebraska landowner Randy Thompson speaks out against the Keystone XL pipeline inNebraska landowner Randy Thompson speaks out against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, 2011. Credit: Robert Meyers/Greenpeace
WASHINGTON—Nebraskans suspected that somebody on Capitol Hill would try to force the Obama administration to drastically speed up decision-making on the now-delayed Keystone XL pipeline.

They just never figured it would be one of their own.

The chutzpah of Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry in trying to fast track the pipeline has outraged Cornhuskers who labored for years to reroute the fiercely debated $7 billion project out of the environmentally sensitive Sandhills. Some are predicting that the seven-term Republican could be punching himself a one-way ticket out of Washington with this attempted legislative end-run.

"We feel like we're being totally undermined," rancher and farmer Randy Thompson told InsideClimate News. "I don't see how this wouldn't make him vulnerable in the next election. He might be in for a rude awakening in 2012."

House leadership appears intent on rolling Terry's measure into this week's vote on a mega-bill that features the extension of a payroll tax break as its centerpiece. Action could come as early as Tuesday as Congress scurries to wrap up loose ends before a Christmas break.

Terry's North American Energy Access Act sidesteps the State Department, which has authority over the project because the pipeline crosses an international border. Instead, it requires Calgary-based TransCanada to apply for a Keystone XL permit via the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—and give FERC just 30 days to act on the application. That would force the Obama administration to approve or reject the pipeline before the November 2012 presidential election.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said such legislation would be dead on arrival in his chamber. Meanwhile, a carefully treading-President Obama—hesitating to utter the word veto—has vowed to reject the bill if it crosses his desk.

Still, just the thought that Terry, 49, could be so completely tone deaf in his home state fires up Jane Kleeb. The executive director of Bold Nebraska was instrumental in uniting a diverse coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmental organizations.

The coalition fears Terry's measure could compromise the relocation of the Keystone XL and jeopardize the rights of landowners who live and work along the new, yet-to-be-determined route.

Rep. Lee Terry/Credit: Nebraska  Library  Commission,  flickrRep. Lee Terry/Credit: Nebraska Library Commission, flickr"He thinks he doesn't have to be accountable to Nebraskans," she said, noting that neither Terry nor his staffers spoke out for or against Keystone XL during the lengthy State Department hearing process. "Yet he's back in Washington, D.C., doing the bidding of Big Oil and quite frankly he should be ashamed of himself."

Terry's office did not respond to requests for comment from InsideClimate News.

State Sen. Ken Haar pointed out that what Terry is orchestrating in the nation's capital reminds him of an "Alice in Wonderland" theme where events just keep getting "curiouser and curiouser."

"It's just bizarre on his part," said Haar, a Democrat who represents a district in and around the capital city of Lincoln.

"I guess the question is, has he been listening to Nebraskans? They've spoken pretty loudly. I don't know what he’s trying to accomplish other than getting his name in the newspapers."

Why Terry Spoke Up

What triggered Terry's bill is no mystery.

In early November, the Obama administration opted to delay its decision on Keystone XL in large part because Nebraskans so vociferously opposed it. State Department officials estimate an environmental analysis of a reroute through the state—one that would avoid the Sandhills and irreplaceable Ogallala Aquifer—wouldn't be complete until 2013.

Later that month, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman finally called a special session so Nebraska's 49 senators could tackle pipeline legislation. Haar was a longtime proponent of such action.

During the 15-day special session, TransCanada agreed to cooperate with the state Department of Environmental Quality to find a new route for the pipeline. And Heineman signed legislation that will fund an environmental study for the new route. Ultimately, the governor can grant a thumbs up or thumbs down to the relocation.

Originally, 254 miles of the Keystone XL pipeline would have been situated directly over the aquifer in Nebraska. Farmers there count on 92,685 irrigation wells to provide water for more than 8.5 million acres of crops and pastures.

Rerouting the pipeline and undergoing the necessary environmental review will take a considerable amount of time, Haar said.

"We're not talking about being done tomorrow," he said, adding that the new route hasn't even been drawn yet. "Lee Terry seems disconnected on what just happened in Nebraska. Either he's not listening or he isn't understanding. It's hard to tell. If he's saying that there's a federal law that overrides the state law, that just doesn't make sense."

Last of Terry in 2012?

Kleeb and numerous Nebraska landowners say Terry is miscalculating if he thinks his latest proposal is repercussion-free.

"I think Lee Terry believes he's invincible," Kleeb said. "We’ll see if we can translate our grassroots power into political action."

Already, at least four candidates are vying for Terry’s seat, traditionally a GOP stronghold covering a tiny eastern section of the state, including Omaha. Terry won 61% of the vote when he was re-elected in 2010.

Two Republicans, University of Nebraska at Omaha math professor, Jack Heidel, and Omaha financial adviser and former University of Nebraska quarterback, Brett Lindstrom, are already preparing for the 2012 primary. Douglas County treasurer John Ewing and Omaha state Sen. Gwen Howard have entered the contest as Democrats.

"Lee Terry still thinks this is some sort of fringe environmental issue," Kleeb said about the 1,702-mile pipeline that would pump up to 830,000 barrels per day of heavy crude from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast. "It has never been that and it never will be that. It's a fundamental issue about fairness, landowners' rights and water. This issue has captivated our state for two years."

Part of a Pattern

Terry's latest legislative venture isn't at all shocking to John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.

"The House agenda seems to be to put Obama in a political box between labor and the environment," Hansen said. "That's what it looks like and I suspect that's what it is."

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