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In this Jan 16, 2015 file photo, a barn called the Energy Barn, which was built by anti-pipeline activists directly on the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, stands in a snowy corn field near Bradshaw, Neb. Officials with TransCanada said Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, they've filed paperwork in nine counties to acquire access to land that's needed for the construction and operation of the pipeline.Nati Harnik/The Associated Press

TransCanada Corp. moved on Tuesday to force nearly 90 recalcitrant Nebraska landowners to take arbitrary payments so the Calgary-based giant can dig up their land to lay the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would funnel Alberta oil sands crude to Texas Gulf ports and refineries.

TransCanada admitted it took legal action as a "last resort," and that it had run out of time to make voluntary deals with Nebraska landowners who do not want Keystone XL slicing across their land or are not willing to accept the price company is offering. The company served notice to those people in court that it intends to invoke the right of eminent domain, which would allow it to use their land for the project in exchange for compensation set by independent appraisers.

"Eminent domain is a last resort and our first priority is always to negotiate voluntary agreements with landowners," the company said in a statement, adding that it still hopes to reach deals. The company said eminent domain allows "commodities like food, oil, natural gas and power to have the safe transportation corridors needed to get to where they are used: in homes, factories and the 250 million vehicles that need to start up each day in America."

Anti-Keystone XL activists in Nebraska filed new lawsuits against TransCanada, contending that the use of eminent domain gives landowners the legal standing they need to challenge the route, which Nebraska Supreme Court last week ruled is lawful.

"Our land is not for sale, and we will keep fighting TransCanada until we see their tail lights go back across our border," landowner Meghan Hammond said. Activists and environmentalists who say the project would spur development of Alberta's vast oil sands reserves built a clean-energy barn in the path of the proposed pipeline last summer as a protest.

TransCanada says ranchers and farmers would not lose their land, and the pipeline would not endanger groundwater.

In voluntary deals and the imposed terms of eminent domain agreements, landowners would "continue to own and farm the land. TransCanada is acquiring the right to construct, operate and maintain a pipeline below ground," Keystone projects land manager Andrew Craig said. "We have made numerous offers to negotiate generous agreements with all landowners," he added. The court filings on Monday came just before a two-year deadline to invoke eminent domain. "We have waited as long as we could under state law before beginning the process."

More than 740 Nebraska landowners have accepted deals with TransCanada in the two years since its amended route – which now skirts the Ogallala aquifer – was approved under special state legislation.

"Nebraska families are facing an inconceivable moment when land that has been in their hands for generations is being taken away from them by a foreign oil company," said Jane Kleeb, who heads Bold Nebraska, the coalition opposing Keystone XL.

The Keystone XL battle also flared in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, accused TransCanada of abusing eminent domain for a private project that is "not in the public interest" but would force landowners to submit to a foreign corporation that intends to export its oil.

The new Republican majority in the Senate thwarted efforts by Democratic senators to force votes – which could have been politically embarrassing – on amendments to legislation that would approve Keystone XL.

An amendment that would have banned any export of oil carried by Keystone XL, either as crude or refined – in effect calling out supporters who insist the oil would not go beyond the U.S. market – was killed 57-42 rather than being substantively voted on.

An amendment that would have forced TransCanada to use U.S. steel only was killed by a vote to table it rather than vote on its substance. The result means Keystone XL supporters will not face accusations in the next election that they voted against Buy America regulations. The tactics made a mockery of Republican promises that the era of Democratic derailing of Keystone XL debate in the Senate was over.

Only last week, the new majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, vowed to restore full and open debate on the Senate floor with amendments welcomed from all sides and put to a vote.

"The Senate is out of practice here," Mr. McConnell, said. "We are not trying to block anybody's amendment."