Keystone XL: What’s the Real Story?

January 10, 2015

The Keystone XL Pipeline will deliver shale oil from Canada to refineries in Illinois and Texas, and to a storage facility in Oklahoma. Will deliver is a misnomer, however, for a working pipeline from Alberta to Illinois and Port Arthur in Texas exists. Now.

So what’s all the fuss about, if the thing is already built? A bigger, more direct pipeline from Alberta to Steele City in Nebraska, apparently. (If you knew there was a working pipeline now, say so in the comments section. You’ll find no comment from me, by the way.)

I intended to focus on the January 9 decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court—and I’ll get to it—but learning about the existing pipeline makes it hard not to note the “set piece” nature of the Washington debate. Republicans holler about jobs and energy and have made Keystone passage a marker. Democrats predict, predictably, an environmental Armageddon.

Sadly, too much of our public policy ends up being about “statements” and “positions.” Who really knows how many jobs will be created? The oil exists and will be sold, which means the pipeline only affects producer/refiner cost, and the amounts of oil at issue are miniscule as part of the world supply. As for the environment, there’s risk, for sure, but it’s really about a catastrophic event, as opposed to daily effects. So, you’re on the jobs and energy team, or you’re on the environment team, and the votes are really about Which Side Are You On?

What about the Nebraska Supreme Court decision? The case is Thompson v. Heineman, No. S-14-158. The case is long and tedious and ends abruptly, due to a quirk in Nebraska law. Here are the basics:

The part of the pipeline which is at issue runs through Nebraska. That has Nebraskans unhappy, despite the Right-leaning tendencies of its voters. (If a conservative is a liberal who got mugged, a Nebraska environmentalist is someone who worries about a pipeline break in his yard, as opposed to such a break in Iowa.)

Some properties owners sued. They did not allege that their property would be directly affected by the pipeline. They did, however, claim a Nebraska law was unconstitutional.

Nebraska vests in its Public Service Commission authority to approve the pipeline and other similar projects. In 2012 the law was amended to allow the governor sole authority to allow “major oil pipeline” carriers to use eminent domain to take private property. This amendment, the plaintiffs claimed, was unconstitutional.

The Nebraska Supreme Court held, 4-3, that the 2012 amendment was unconstitutional. Why? It’s not important, for in Nebraska the majority does not rule on all questions in the Nebraska Supreme Court. A provision in the Nebraska Constitution states:  No legislative act shall be held unconstitutional except by the concurrence of five judges. Thus, five justices had to find the amendment unconstitutional, and pipeline opponents only had four.

Along with the Court decision on Friday, the House of Representatives in Washington voted yet again to approve the pipeline. The Senate will approve it within days. President Obama has said he’ll veto the bill, and there are separation of powers issues, apparently, which mostly go unmentioned by the media. (Here’s Why You Should Be Skeptical of Congress’s Keystone XL Bill Even If You Favor the Pipeline by Chris Mooney for the Washington Post on November 18, 2014.) Regardless, the votes are not there to override the expected veto. Further, and to repeat:  We have a functioning pipeline now, which begs the question:  Is this really all about a bigger pipeline over a slightly shorter route, or is there more to the story?

Note:  Further research has clarified an issue. The Keystone Pipeline does exist. The XL portion is, at least, the new, bigger line from Alberta to Steele City. Whether the Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas line is part of XL or not does not matter much, as it is completed. What remains is only the new, bigger line and a short line from north of Port Arthur to Houston. 

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