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The last permitting hurdle for the $8 billion project has been cleared, after nine years of controversy and delay.
Nebraska state regulators approved a new route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline across the state in a 3-2 vote on Monday (Nov. 20), removing the last permitting hurdle for the $8 billion project after nine years of controversy and delay. If completed, the Keystone XL would move oil-sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to southern Nebraska, where it would connect to existing Keystone pipelines. From there, the oil-sands crude would flow to refineries along the Texas Gulf coast.
The approval came four days after TransCanada, the Canadian pipeline company behind the project, was in the news for a major oil spill. The company’s original Keystone pipeline system—to which the Keystone XL would be an addition—spilled upwards of 210,000 gallons of oil-sands crude in South Dakota on Thursday (Nov. 16). TransCanada has been operating the larger Keystone pipeline system since 2010. It spilled oil 35 times that year alone.
The panel that approved Keystone XL on Monday was made up of five Nebraska state regulators (four Republicans and one Democrat) and under Nebraska law was not allowed to consider the risk of spills when deciding on a permit, the New York Times (paywall) reports.
The route they approved notably avoids the state’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills region, the Washington Post (paywall) reports. Previous proposals for Keystone XL went through the Sandhills, a National Natural Landmark of prairie land that covers about one quarter of Nebraska.
(Update 130pm ET: TransCanada released a muted statement after the panel’s vote, saying the company was “evaluating” the approved alternative route.)
Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Dlouhy notes the project could still get tied up by legal challenges, even though the project has now secured the last needed permit.
Keystone XL has been a political flashpoint in the US for nearly a decade. Former president Barack Obama rejected the project after the State Department found it would create only 35 long-term jobs. Soon after Donald Trump became president, he signed memoranda to expedite the environmental review process for Keystone XL.
But the project has been held up by opposition in Nebraska, where 92 percent of the land is dedicated to farming and ranching. An unusual coalition of ranchers, farmers, and environmentalists concerned about groundwater contamination and spoiled farm land have stalled Keystone XL for years using a range of legal tactics. For example, in 2015, Nebraskan landowners successfully blocked TransCanada’s attempt to use eminent domain after the state supreme court approved a previous route for the pipeline. Almost certainly, there will be continued legal challenges and protests to stop this iteration of the XL project.
Zoe Schlanger is an environment reporter for Quartz, where this article was originally published.