My Side of the Fencepost

Public concerns can spur action 

By Jim Dickerson 

Public concerns, when expressed forcefully enough, can still make a difference. A good example is the Trans-Canada Keystone XL crude oil pipeline that is proposed to cross Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

After the environmental mess created by the Gulf oil spill, there was a renewed interest in the Keystone XL project.

Actually, the two projects are quite different in terms of the potential magnitude of pollution. As we now know, it is considerably more difficult to stop an oil well leak a mile under the ocean, than to stop a pipeline leak about four feet below the ground.

Still, we know there is potential environmental damage from a high pressure oil pipeline leak, and every precaution should be taken to make sure that doesn’t happen.

We learned some things with the BP oil spill. Despite assurances that all safety precautions were being taken, and that automatic shut-off valves were in place and tested periodically to make sure they work properly — that wasn’t happening.

The worst part is that our government, with all of the off-shore drilling regulations that were supposed to be in place, was asleep at the switch.

I don’t have any poll results to back me up, but I believe public opinion shifted on the Keystone XL pipeline. Before, we were mostly apathetic. Now, we want all possible assurances of safety and leak prevention. Our representatives have sensed that, and they have also been more actively seeking more safety assurances.

I don’t believe a majority of Nebraskans actually want to stop the pipeline construction, but they certainly want the safest requirements and specifications they can get.

Originally, TransCanada had proposed using a higher pressure and thinner walled pipe than current federal regulations allow. The company has since withdrawn that permit request. That represents public opinion at work.

The U.S. Department of State decided to extend the public comment period on the pipeline for three months to allow more study of the project. I believe that is a response to strong public opinion.

Several of Nebraska’s State Senators, including Sen. Kate Sullivan of District 41, are spearheading an interim study on the state’s pipeline regulations. Again, I believe, that is a reflection of constituent concerns.

U.S. Senator Mike Johanns is now touring the state and visiting with constituents. He is also getting feedback. Johanns posed a good rhetorical question just this week about the pipeline project. To paraphrase a recent story appearing online in Nebraska Watchdog, he asked: Why did TransCanada believe thinner walled pipe was a good approach to start with?

Johanns said he has many more questions to ask TransCanada before he gives the pipeline his stamp of approval.

Of course, timing has a lot to do with these developments. If we hadn’t had the Gulf oil spill at the same time the oil pipeline was under consideration, we might not be having this in-depth debates about the pipeline. In that sense, we’re fortunate that the sequence of recent events occurred as they did.

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