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Nebraska Supreme Court Clears Way For Keystone XL Pipeline

Updated at 10:59 a.m.

Nebraska's Supreme Court, in a split decision, cleared the the way for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline's route.

Four of the seven judges ruled that landowners who challenged the state law giving Nebraska's governor authority to approve the pipeline's route have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the law. The same judges also found that a lower court correctly ruled the state law as unconstitutional. But Nebraska's Constitution requires a supermajority of five to strike down legislation as unconstitutional. And so, despite a majority of judges finding the law was unconstitutional, the lower court's decision was vacated, clearing the way for TransCanada's Keystone XL Pipeline.

NPR's Jeff Brady tells our Newscast unit that the pipeline is controversial primarily because of the oil it would transport — crude from Canada's tar sands, which emit more pollution during production than traditional forms of oil.

The court's decision allows the U.S. State Department, which has been reviewing the pipeline for more than six years, to decide on whether the project to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico is in the national interest. But the pipeline has become a hot-button political issue with politicians from both parties, some unions and energy companies supporting its approval while environmental groups, some Nebraska landowners and some liberal Democrats opposing it.

A State Department environmental review last year concluded the pipeline wouldn't have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

Congressional Republicans want to short-circuit the years-long approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline and grant the project a permit immediately. The GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives could vote as early as today on a bill to approve the pipeline. The Senate, which also has a Republican majority, is considering similar legislation. The White House says President Obama will veto any congressional legislation that approves the pipeline. He has previously said he will let the process — including the one in Nebraska's courts — to play out before his decision. And the White House reiterated that position today.

"As we have made clear, we are going to let that process play out," spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. "Regardless of the Nebraska ruling today, the House bill still conflicts with longstanding Executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests, and if presented to the president, he will veto the bill."

But after today's court decision, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the decision "wipes out President Obama's last excuse."

"Regardless of whatever new excuse he may come up with, Congress is moving forward," she said in a statement.

The comments were echoed by the American Petroleum Institute, which said Obama "has no more excuses to delay on deny the Keystone XL pipeline."

Opposition to today's court decision came from a coalition of landowners and environmental groups in Nebraska. One of those groups, Bold Nebraska, said the decision was now in Obama's hands.

"This is a bad day for property rights in Nebraska," the group said in a statement. "Private, foreign corporations now know they can buy their way through our state."

You can read the court's decision here.

Our full coverage of the pipeline is here.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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