SIOUX FALLS | Three times more individuals and groups than four years ago want to have a say in South Dakota's decision on whether to re-approve the portion of the Keystone XL pipeline that would run through the state if it is ever built, according to filings with the state.
Almost 45 "party status" applications have been submitted to the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, up from 15 during the process that led to initial approval in 2010. Thirty-five of the applications express reservations over the project, and one landowner said he was "bullied" by the operator of the proposed pipeline during negotiations to cross his property — an assertion the company denies.
The pipeline has stirred grassroots opposition from the start. Opponents say it would hurt efforts to curb global warming, threaten groundwater and residents' property rights. Many of the applicants identified themselves as members of local and national grassroots groups and only two had expressed opposition in the initial certification process.
TransCanada Corp. last month formally asked the commission to reapprove the project. State rules dictate permits must be reapproved if the construction of the project does not start within four years of their issuance.
Party status allows a city, county, governmental agency, nonprofit organization or individual to cross-examine witnesses and take part in the discovery process. The commission on Tuesday is expected to rule on whether to grant the status to those who have applied. There is no timeline for the entire re-approval process.
The Keystone XL pipeline has been delayed for years awaiting a decision by the federal administration of President Barack Obama. The White House said earlier this year that it was putting off a decision indefinitely.
The proposed project would transport oil from Canadian tar sands through Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries along the Gulf Coast. The South Dakota portion of the project is about 315 miles long and would extend from the Montana border in Harding County to the Nebraska border in Tripp County.
TransCanada has acquired 100 percent of the easements — or rights to use property — from private landowners in South Dakota and Montana, and 84 percent along Nebraska's new route, said Mark Cooper, a spokesman for TransCanada.
But the submitted party status applications show landowners remain uneasy about the project and some believe the operator's tactics to ease the land were unfair.
"The Keystone XL is slated to cross my land by Draper," Paul Seamans wrote in his party status application. "I feel I was bullied by TransCanada in that they threatened me with eminent domain in my first contract with their land agent." Eminent domain is the government power to take private property for public purposes if just compensation is paid.
Seamans is also the chairman of Dakota Rural Action, a grassroots agricultural group that has opposed the pipeline since it was first proposed.
"TransCanada came into Nebraska using the high pressure threat of exercising eminent domain to take our land," Bonny Kilmurry, a Nebraska landowner, wrote in her application. "I fear that if they receive permits to continue this pipeline our land, people and water will be badly abused and disrespected..."
Not all applicants are based in South Dakota. Fifteen applications were submitted from Nebraska, two each from New York and Minnesota, and one from Colorado.
Cooper said TransCanada representatives have being "truthful, open and honest" when dealing with landowners.
"If a landowner asks what happens if we can't reach a voluntary agreement, the response would be that law may allow for the acquisition of the right to construct, operate and maintain a pipeline through processes that will vary depending on jurisdiction," Cooper said. He added that eminent domain is "absolutely a last resort."