Keystone XL looms large in low-profile Nebraska race
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – A normally low-profile race for a Nebraska state commission is getting special attention from opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, who see the contest as a chance to derail the project with a candidate who firmly opposes it.
It’s unclear whether the Nebraska Public Service Commission will review the pipeline route again, but if the state Supreme Court throws out the commission’s decision last year to approve the route, project developer TransCanada would most likely have to reapply for state approval.
That possibility prompted Keystone XL opponents to try to replace retiring Republican incumbent Frank Landis with someone more skeptical about the route. Landis was one of the “yes” votes in the commission’s 3-2 decision last year to approve a route for the project.
“This is definitely a race we’re focused on for the 2018 cycle, for obvious reasons,” said Jane Kleeb, president of Bold Alliance, a pipeline opposition group. “We believe the Public Service Commission will be faced with Keystone again if we’re successful in the Supreme Court.”
The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Thursday in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the commission’s decision. A ruling isn’t expected until mid-2019.
The $8 billion, 1,184-mile pipeline would carry crude oil from Canada through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect with the existing Keystone pipeline that runs to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. Project critics have raised concerns about spills that could contaminate groundwater and the property rights of affected landowners.
Two candidates are seeking the commission seat: state Sen. Dan Watermeier, a Republican from Syracuse who supports the pipeline, and Christa Yoakum, a Democrat from Lincoln who said she’d likely reject the pipeline if it comes before the commission again.
Bold Alliance recently launched television and radio ads urging voters to support Yoakum, and on Sunday, the group plans to host a get-out-the-vote rally in Lincoln with local and national activists. Kleeb said supporters expect to knock on 20,000 doors before the Nov. 6 election.
The winner will represent District 1, an eight-county region in southeast Nebraska that favors Republicans but also includes Lincoln, home to many pipeline opponents.
Watermeier expressed support for the pipeline as a state senator and accepted a $1,000 donation from TransCanada in December 2017, one month before he announced his bid for the commission. If elected, Watermeier said he would review all of the evidence in greater detail and give project supporters and opponents a fair hearing.
“If we’re forced to look at it again, I’ll look at it without having my mind made up,” Watermeier said. “It’s unfair to the public to have your mind made up before you go into something like this.”
Watermeier said TransCanada’s contribution wouldn’t sway his decision.
“I’ve taken donations from all sorts of groups, and I’m very up front with them that I’m not going to be an automatic yes vote,” he said.
Watermeier said he’s running for the $75,000-a-year job primarily to promote economic development by expanding broadband service in rural Nebraska and working to improve the state’s 911 services with new technology.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission regulates taxis, railroads, pipelines and other “common carriers” that transport goods and people. Although they run as partisan candidates, commissioners are akin to judges who review evidence and justify their decisions with legal rulings that can be challenged in court.
Yoakum is skeptical of Watermeier’s claims of impartiality given the TransCanada donation and his previous statements supporting the project.
She pledged not to take money from industries the commission regulates, even though she has accepted contributions from pipeline opponents. Yoakum said she would listen to officials from industries the commission regulates, but was more interested in representing the public’s interests.
“I think there’s evidence out there to show that there’s nothing for Nebraskans to gain with this pipeline,” she said. “Unless it can be proved to me that there is something, I would reject it.”
Yoakum said she has opposed the pipeline ever since she learned that TransCanada had donated to then-Gov. Dave Heineman and then-Attorney General Jon Bruning in 2010. Both campaigns returned the contributions after opponents noted that federal law prohibits donations from foreign contributions. The money at the time came from TransCanada’s main operation in Canada, instead of one of its U.S. subsidiaries.
“I just felt that something fishy was going on,” she said.
Yoakum said she has concerns about the project’s potential environmental impact and questions whether it would provide more than a negligible economic benefit to Nebraska.
Watemeier has outraised and outspent Yoakum so far, having poured more than $130,000 into his campaign, according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Much of his money has come from Nebraska Republicans, including former Gov. Dave Heineman and $3,700 from wealthy Falls City businessman Charles Herbster. He also has scored endorsements from some Democratic state senators who support the pipeline.
Yoakum has spent more than $51,000 so far and still has about $30,000 on hand. More than $19,000 of her funding has come from the Bold Alliance, and she received $5,000 from California billionaire and liberal activist Tom Steyer.