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This March 11, 2013, file photo shows a sign reading ‘Stop the TransCanada Pipeline’ in a field near Bradshaw, Neb.

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

A Nebraska judge ordered a halt on Thursday to TransCanada Corp.'s efforts to force recalcitrant Nebraska landowners to allow the company to dig up their property for the Keystone XL right-of-way.

The injunction again snarls Keystone in a legal thicket in Nebraska, raising the likelihood that the state's Supreme Court will be forced to rule on the legality of TransCanada's route permit across Nebraska, a ruling the court sidestepped last month.

That uncertainty over the legality of TransCanada's route permit in Nebraska had previously been used by President Barack Obama to justify further delay in an approval decision for the controversial $8-billion pipeline across the United States from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Thursday's injunction may be the first step in another protracted legal battle that Mr. Obama could again use to delay deciding.

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Nebraska State District Court Judge Mark Kozisek issued a temporary injunction against TransCanada, halting "condemnation cases along the proposed TransCanada Keystone Pipeline XL route," lawyers for the landowners said.

TransCanada had filed actions against nearly 90 Nebraska landowners seeking to force them to allow their property to be dug up and the pipeline laid in exchange for compensation set by arbitration. The company says it remains committed to trying to settle those cases by negotiation but had to file the case before a two-year clock ran out late last month.

It also claimed the injunction was issued as part of a deal agreed between TransCanada and lawyers for the landowners to expedite the case.

"We don't want a for-profit foreign company coming to Nebraska and getting permission to act through political favouritism," said David Domina, the lawyer acting for the landowners contesting the constitutional validity of legislation that gave TransCanada a route permit without going through the state's usual requirement of approval by the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

TransCanada said it didn't contest the landowners' request for an injunction because it wants a speedy resolution of the legal uncertainty surrounding its authority to invoke eminent domain to force landowners to permit the pipeline to cross their properties.

"All we have asked for is a clearly defined approval process for Keystone XL," said Shawn Howard, a spokesman for the Canadian company. "TransCanada believes the laws at issue in the case are valid and its actions are proper. But TransCanada respects the Nebraska legal system and process."

Landowners in several Nebraska counties have filed lawsuits against TransCanada, claiming the pipeline route permit was unlawfully issued. "The Nebraska Legislature improperly empowered the state's governor, who has now left office, authority to give TransCanada a political favour," the lawyers for the landowners said in a statement.

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The two sides were quick to snipe at each other.

"We intend to hold TransCanada's feet to a Nebraska fire," Mr. Domina said in a video statement.

"They had time to craft a video news release that they issued seconds after the hearing – which shows this was something that had been in the works for some time and helps put comments by some in a different perspective and context," TransCanada spokesman Mark Cooper said in an e-mail.

Following the January Nebraska Supreme Court decision not to rule on the constitutionality of the permitting process, the Obama administration restarted the State Department's evaluation of Keystone XL. That process was expected to be completed within weeks with a recommendation sent to Mr. Obama.

But Secretary of State John Kerry could order yet another halt in the evaluation of the long-delayed pipeline if the Nebraska landowner cases seem headed again to the state's Supreme Court.

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