LINCOLN, Neb. — Frustrated with state and federal officials, opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are turning to low-level county commissions and zoning boards in a new attempt to slow a project that has become a focal point of national battle over climate change.
Landowners and other opponents of the pipeline, which could carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf coast, are asking county commissions along the route to pass resolutions formally opposing the project to show the federal government there is local opposition. They're also pushing for local zoning regulations — no matter how small — that could make it harder for the project to proceed.
"If enough counties have regulations — real, meaningful regulations to protect the groundwater — then maybe it hits a point where it's not very economical to run this thing through Nebraska," said Brian Bedient, a farmer in eastern Nebraska, the state where the opposition effort is based.
The new local strategy comes as most state officials in Nebraska have dropped their opposition since Calgary-based pipeline owner TransCanada agreed to move the proposed route away from an ecologically sensitive area. Federal agencies and other states on the route have not raised obstacles to the plan. President Obama, who has expressed some concerns about the impact on climate change, could make a decision later this year on whether to give final government approval.
National environmental groups charge that the United States should not cooperate with fossil fuel projects that would contribute to global warming. But project supporters argue that the U.S. is better off with more oil produced in friendly countries than hostile ones.
The proposed pipeline route crosses 12 Nebraska counties, each with a local government commission. In April, Holt County became the first in Nebraska to pass a resolution opposing the project. Landowners in York County will ask the county board to approve a similar measure this month.
TransCanada company officials have met with all county commissions along the pipeline's proposed route. TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the company has promised to build the $7 billion pipeline to rigorous safety standards and carry $200 million in insurance to cover any cleanup costs.
"We work very hard to be seen as a good neighbor and to answer the questions that landowners, regulators or elected officials may have," Howard said.
The company says that pipeline opponents are resorting to delaying tactics after repeatedly failing to stop the project.
For the officials in rural, sparely populated counties, the pipeline presents a difficult balancing act between landowners' concerns about their private property rights and the potential exposure to company lawsuits.
"You hope to make the right decisions, to support what your constituents are thinking," said Holt County Commissioner William Tielke. "But we still have to follow the rules of the federal government."
Obama, who had held up approval during the fight over the original route, said last week the project from Canada to Texas should be approved if it doesn't worsen carbon pollution.
Farmer Jim Carlson, whose land near Osceola, Neb., is on the proposed pipeline route, said it makes sense for local officials to get involved.
"County officials have a responsibility to make sure the public is protected from anything that might happen," Carlson said.
Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, said local authorities could order a review before a pipeline could run under a county road, or for heavy trucks and machinery to cross bridges. But a blanket attempt to deny access would almost certainly trigger a lawsuit that counties would lose, he said.
That's not stopping opponents from trying, and many county officials seem to be sympathetic. Opponents argue that local opinion could affect Obama's decision.
"This is a no-brainer: We'll back our taxpayers," said Ralph Metschke, a Holt County commissioner.
York County Commissioner Tom Shellington says he now understands landowners' argument that the intrusion isn't justified.
"All we're doing here is putting the pipeline down, shipping the oil to Texas, refining it and sending it overseas. I just don't see much benefit for Nebraska — but I don't know if we have any power if the president approves it."
Opponents are asking county officials to push for noise restrictions during construction, local agreements to restore damaged land, and permitting fees for inspections and running a pipeline beneath county roads.
In August, Nebraska opponents plan to erect two barns with solar panels and wind turbines directly in the pipeline's path — a move designed to force developer TransCanada to run the pipeline around them or invoke eminent domain power to destroy them. Organizers have raised $10,000 of the $65,000 needed to build the structures.