The developer of the Keystone XL pipeline is showering Nebraska public officials with campaign cash as it fights for regulatory approval in a state that is one of the last lines of resistance for the $8 billion project.
A political action committee for TransCanada Inc. has donated more than $65,000 to campaigns within the last year, mostly to Republican state lawmakers, the Nebraska GOP and Gov. Pete Ricketts, according to an Associated Press review of campaign disclosure records.
Pipeline opponents say the company's contributions show it's trying to exert influence over the state's top elected officials at the expense of landowners who don't want the pipeline running through their property.
"There is no question big political donations have bought some politicians," said Jane Kleeb, president of the Bold Alliance.
Kleeb said her group has worked to recruit and support candidates who openly oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. She noted that activists have kept the project from moving forward for a decade, despite being outspent. TransCanada first proposed the pipeline in July 2008.
Within the past year, TransCanada has given $25,000 to Ricketts' re-election campaign, $15,000 to the Nebraska Republican Party and $25,500 to state lawmakers, according to filings with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
TransCanada spokesman Matthew John defended the contributions.
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"We participate in an open and transparent political process and will continue to support elected officials and public policies that promote the safe and environmentally responsible development of North American energy infrastructure," he said.
John said the Keystone XL is "a safe and critical piece of energy infrastructure" that will provide economic benefit to local communities.
Most of the donations were made last year, before a state regulatory commission narrowly approved the project. The Nebraska Public Service Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the pipeline in November, but its decision is mired in a pending lawsuit before the state Supreme Court and could get returned for a new review. Oral arguments in the case aren't expected until September at the earliest.
The 1,179-mile pipeline would transport up to 830,000 barrels a day of Canadian crude through Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, where it would connect with lines to carry oil to Gulf Coast refineries. TransCanada announced in April it was meeting with landowners and starting aerial surveillance of the proposed route. The company hopes to begin construction in early 2019.
The pipeline faces intense resistance from environmental groups, Native American tribes and some landowners along the route, who worry about its long-term impact on their groundwater and property rights. Many of the affected Nebraska landowners have accepted the company's proposal, however, and are eager to collect payments.
A federal lawsuit brought by Montana landowners and environmental groups seeks to overturn President Donald Trump's decision to grant a presidential permit for the project, which was necessary because it would cross the U.S.-Canadian border.
TransCanada's spending in Nebraska is high compared to many companies that lobby state officials, said Jack Gould, issues chairman of Common Cause Nebraska, a political watchdog group. In addition to the campaign contributions, TransCanada has previously reported spending more than $1.2 million on lobbying in Nebraska between 2006 and mid-2017.
"I guess from their perspective, they're doing what they think they need to do to get the pipeline built," Gould said.
The Nebraska Legislature gave the project an informal boost in March 2017 when a super-majority of the state's lawmakers signed a letter calling on the Nebraska Public Service Commission to approve the route through the state. All but three were Republicans, although some Democrats support the project because of its promise to create union jobs.
The letter said the pipeline has already undergone a thorough review and would generate local property tax revenue. Four months later, many of those who signed the letter received donations ranging from $500 to $5,000.
This year, a bill that would have imposed tougher regulations on oil pipelines was killed early in the legislative session.
Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha, the measure's sponsor, withdrew the measure less than a week after introducing it. Krist, who has taken contributions from TransCanada in past years and is now a Democratic candidate for governor, said there was no point in pursuing the legislation after it was intentionally steered to a hostile committee.
Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Kenny Zoeller said TransCanada made the party contributions as a sponsor for state GOP events, including recognition dinners for state senators and local volunteers. The state party has approved resolutions in the past voicing formal support for the Keystone XL, he said.
One state lawmaker who received a $1,000 donation, state Sen. Dan Watermeier, of Syracuse, is now running for an open seat on the Nebraska Public Service Commission.
Watermeier, a Republican who supports the pipeline, said he has received contributions from the company in the past. The most recent one was made before he announced his candidacy for the commission, and Watermeier noted that other candidates have taken donations from industries the commission regulates.
"I don't think it's a big deal," he said.
In a statement, Ricketts campaign spokesman Matthew Trail said the governor "appreciates the support of each of the more than 2,700 contributors to his re-election campaign, who share his vision for a bright, prosperous future for our growing state."