Nebraska's highest court threw out a challenge Friday to a proposed route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, even though a majority of judges agreed the landowners who sued should have won their case. The decision removes a major roadblock for the $7 billion cross-continental project Republicans have vowed to make a key part of their 2015 agenda in Congress.
Four judges on the seven-member Nebraska Supreme Court said the landowners should have won their challenge to the 2012 state law that allowed the governor to empower Calgary-based TransCanada to force them to sell their property for the project. But because the case raised a constitutional question, a supermajority of five judges was needed to rule on the law.
"The legislation must stand by default," the court said in the opinion.
The proposed 1,179-mile pipeline would carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma along the way.
The newly empowered Republican-led Congress is moving ahead on approving the project, with the House scheduled to vote on Friday. The Senate is expected to finish the bill by the end of the month, setting up a showdown with President Barack Obama, who has threatened a veto.
The president also has said he was waiting for the Nebraska court ruling to decide whether to approve the project. The pipeline needs presidential approval because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border.
"President Obama is now out of excuses for blocking the Keystone pipeline and the thousands of American jobs it would create," Republican House Speaker John Boehner said. "Finally, it's time to start building."
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday that the State Department was reviewing the ruling. But he said that regardless of the Nebraska ruling, the House legislation conflicts with the president's power "and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests."
Environmentalists and other opponents argue that any leaks could contaminate water supplies, and that the project would increase air pollution around refineries and harm wildlife. But the GOP, oil industry and other backers say those fears are exaggerated, and that the pipeline would create jobs and ease American dependence on oil from the Middle East. They note a U.S. State Department report raised no major environmental objections.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman opposed TransCanada's original proposed route that crossed the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region, but he approved the project in 2012 after the company altered the pipeline's path. Heineman noted that the proposal was reviewed by the Department of Environmental Quality, which is part of his administration.
In Friday's ruling, the Nebraska high court noted that Nebraska and North Dakota are the only two states that require super-majorities to strike down state laws under the state constitution. The requirement also came into play in a controversial case in North Dakota in October, when three justices on the five-member Supreme Court voted to invalidate a state law that limits the use of drugs to perform abortions. That was one vote short of what was needed, and the law is in effect.