Landowners holding out on Keystone XL oil pipeline
The U.S. State Department has delayed a decision on whether to approve a permit for TransCanada to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry about a half-million barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
But Nebraska landowners along the proposed pipeline route face a critical decision right now.
About 83 percent of affected landowners in the state have signed easement contracts to allow TransCanada to build on their land, according to the oil company. Out of around 470 landowners, that leaves around 90 who had yet to reach agreements as of mid-April.
TransCanada said those individuals are receiving final offers. They can either sign, try to negotiate a new agreement, or hold out and likely face eminent domain.
Jeri Kuchera, of Bassett, Neb., is one of the holdouts. Her 97-year-old mother owns property along the pipeline route north of Newport near the Niobrara River. The grazing and farmland has been in the family for more than 100 years. Because she holds power of attorney for her mother, it is up to Kuchera to decide whether to sign an agreement with TransCanada. She knows her mother opposes the project.
"She has seen times when the ground just absolutely blew away," Kuchera said. "There's a lot of people that do not understand the extreme difference between the route they have selected here and the route that they used to take the first pipeline through eastern Nebraska."
As a member of Landowners for Fairness, a group of landowners in Nebraska, Kuchera had the option of signing a contract negotiated on behalf of the group. But she did not sign, even after receiving a letter from TransCanada that said the offer would be rescinded after April 11. Kuchera said she has not heard from the company and does not plan to respond to any offers to negotiate.
But Nebraska law allows oil and natural gas companies to claim eminent domain on pipeline projects in which they are unable to negotiate construction easements with landowners.
After negotiating with landowners for more than two years, TransCanada is prepared to employ that authority, Keystone spokesman Jeff Rauh said.
"The construction timeframe has been condensed here with the delay in the permitting," Rauh said. "So while in the past we may have had the flexibility to work around a piece of land that we don't have access to, the ability to do that with the condensed time frame is impacted."
Rauh said TransCanada needs to move forward if and when the State Department approves the project.
"Especially with a linear project where you have to line up rights along an extended length, this is an important process to be able to ensure that needed projects are able to be built," he said.
Mike Briggs, of Seward, Neb., is familiar with the process.
The first Keystone pipeline, built in 2009, crosses beneath his cattle feedlot south of the city. Then, about a mile farther, it passes perhaps 50 feet from his home where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Their home is surrounded by open fields.
"If there wasn't a sign there you wouldn't know it's there, but it's 50 feet from my house, and it’s hot bubbling oil," Briggs said. "That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is they took my property and I had no say in it."
Briggs did not sign a contract, and he ended up in court when TransCanada filed a petition of eminent domain in Seward County. A judge-appointed board decided on a dollar amount for compensation. Briggs thought it was too little, but instead of appealing, he settled out of court.
Briggs said there were two issues. First, he couldn't acquire solid proof from an appraiser to show that his home would be less valuable after the pipeline was built. Second, in court he could only fight for more money. In eminent domain proceedings, none of the other details in an easement come into question.
The final settlement came with less money than Briggs wanted but with more conditions for the pipeline. For instance, many easements give TransCanada the ability to return to build another pipeline without negotiating a new contract. Briggs was able to amend his contract to allow one pipeline only.
Whether acquired by eminent domain or by negotiation, easements do not give TransCanada ownership of the land. They give permission to bury the pipeline and come back for maintenance. They also include details on things like restoring the property after construction, and a one-time payment to the landowner.
Lawyer Bill Blake said a common mistake made by landowners is to focus primarily on compensation and not on the remaining details in small type.
"It may be a five to 10 page agreement and sometimes it's rather complex, a lot of legalese, and they don't bother to read it or don't understand it," Blake said. "Later on they find out that they're stuck with some terms that really don't treat them as well as they ought to be treated and there's nothing they can do about it."
Compensation seems to be far from Kuchera's concerns. The same is true for her sister, Teri Taylor, another landowner along the pipeline. Taylor and her husband live north of Newport. They own three separate pieces of land that would be crossed by the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In all, it would pass through nearly six miles of their property in Keya Peha, Rock, and Holt counties. Taylor worries about damaging erosion on her ranch brought on by the construction process and about contamination to the groundwater if an oil spill were to occur.
"They always say it will be localized, but who's to say I'm not going to be the localized area," Taylor said. "There are a lot of issues there that are extremely nerve-racking."
Like Kuchera, Taylor has also not signed an easement with TransCanada. She said there are still many kitchen table conversations ahead.
"What we're trying to do is protect our ranch," she said. "So if there's any way that by willingly entering into an agreement with TransCanada that we have more control over how our ranch is treated and protected, then I don't think we have any other option than to do that."