Despite opposition, many landowners await pipeline

GRANT SCHULTE, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — If the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline ever gains approval, Ronald Weber will watch from his farmhouse as workers lay the line beneath a half-mile of his cropland in northeast Nebraska.

The 69-year-old retired farmer wishes the pipeline had missed his property, simply to avoid the difficulty of growing corn and soybeans around the construction work. But what leaves Weber exasperated are the repeated project delays.

“It’s ridiculous that we haven’t yet built this thing,” he said. “It would have been nice if they had gone a mile over and missed me, but these kinds of things happen. It has to go through somewhere.”

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Weber has plenty of company in Nebraska, a state that has been an impediment to the 1,100-mile-long line almost since it was proposed 10 years ago, but where patience with the struggle seems to be running thin now that the pipeline company has reached financial settlements with three-quarters of the landowners on the route. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to decide in the coming months whether to recommend White House approval of the project.

A group of environmental activists and farmers has cast the $5.4 billion pipeline as a threat to the nation’s efforts to curtail global warming, to the state’s groundwater and to residents’ property rights. The line’s path through Nebraska also remains in legal limbo because of an ongoing court challenge.

But many property owners are now waiting for the pipeline trucks with a sense apathy and resignation, eroding the grassroots resistance that had long bolstered the opposition. The settlement deals offered by TransCanada, the Canadian company behind the project, can run well into six figures and are providing residents here with their first share of the oil-boom money that had enriched those in the prime drilling areas in other states.

Earlier this month, pipeline supporters sought to isolate opponents even more when they gathered signatures from 34 Nebraska lawmakers — a bipartisan, two-thirds majority — for a letter urging federal approval. Three Democrats signed a letter opposing the project.

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Jane Kleeb, director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, said local opposition remains alive. She pointed to 115 of the 515 landowners along the proposed route that she said joined the effort to stop it, despite what she described as high-pressure sales tactics by TransCanada.

“For the last three months, it’s been very stressful on the landowners,” she said.

But other landowners say they’re ready for the dispute to end.

“Up here where the pipeline’s going through, the people I’ve talked to don’t have concerns with it,” said Frankie Maughan Jr., who farms near the route in northeast Nebraska. “They just want the money.”

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Other states long ago signed off on the line, which would carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to Texas Gulf Coast refineries, but nothing has come easy in Nebraska.

First it was complaints that the initial route would have burrowed through the fragile Sandhills region, which sits atop the massive Ogallala reservoir. After the company made changes, the state approved a new route, but in February a judge sided with pipeline opponents in finding that the wrong state officials approved the plan. The state has appealed the ruling.

Surveys commissioned by the University of Nebraska and independent polling firms have shown that most Nebraska residents support the project. The latest federal environmental impact report also was favorable.

“Once we changed the route, the mood in the state completely changed,” said TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard.

The newest offers to property owners promise a 50 percent up-front payment for access plus a signing bonus.

Weber, who owns land near Tilden, about 100 miles northwest of Omaha, said the company’s offer to him equaled what he could have gotten in court. He said he’ll still be able to grow crops on top of the strip where the pipe will be buried five feet underground.

Just a few miles away, 85-year-old Joseph Grosserode said TransCanada agreed to pay him about $100,000 for an easement, and promised he could keep the money even if the project was never built.

“That was a big concern of mine,” Grosserode said.

Tom Rutjens, a construction-company owner who also lives in Tilden, said he knew of two landowners who were dead-set against the pipeline, but more who were willing accept the risks.

“Just about everyone else I’ve talked to has been tickled” with the offers, Rutjens said.

Local opposition declined as TransCanada’s offers went up. Some landowners have received offers as high as $250,000, with signing bonuses of $60,000 to $80,000, Kleeb said.

Kleeb said activists have taken heart from their recent successes, including the court ruling against the route’s approval, and the refusal of some landowners to settle.

Jim Carlson, 59, who farms near the eastern Nebraska town of Osceola, said he’s turned down two TransCanada offers, including one for $244,000, and is more concerned than ever about chemical additives that could run through the pipe.

“I think a lot of people who have signed so far, especially in the beginning, didn’t know a lot about the pipeline,” Carlson said. “Initially, I thought it would be good for the country, that it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But now? They could offer me $344,000 today, and I wouldn’t sign it.”