Montana on Monday approved easements to let the Keystone XL pipeline cross state-owned land, including the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.
The Land Board, chaired by Gov. Brian Schweitzer who was running his last meeting before leaving office, sold the package of 50-year easements to TransCanada for $741,000. The board also finalized approval for land leases for the completion of the Montana-Alberta Tie Line.
But it was the lease for the oil pipeline that brought out some critics, who argued the board isn't doing enough to make sure the pipeline will be safe for the environment. They pointed to last year's oil spill on the Yellowstone, caused when a pipeline ruptured, as an example of the danger posed when rivers are crossed. Opponents also argued it shouldn't be built at all due to global warming concerns from oil production.
The Northern Plains Resource Council, representing some eastern Montana ranchers and landowners affected by the pipeline, wrote a letter to the board advising it that the river crossing points are particularly dangerous.
Jim Jensen, executive of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the board should at least postpone a decision on the portions of the lease package that cross the major rivers. He said there should be no rush since it is conditioned on receiving presidential approval, a process that has been bogged down in Washington, D.C., politics.
Jensen said the tar sands product is very different from normal crude oil, and its potential impact on aquatic environments is untested. He said the Land Board also has an obligation to review the global warming impacts of developing the Canadian oil fields.
"I don't believe it is responsible for the Land Board to make this decision before it has all the information in front of it," he said.
TransCanada told the board that it has agreed during regulatory permit proceedings to bury the pipeline 40 feet under the major rivers, a depth much greater than the older pipeline that ruptured last year.
Schweitzer told the critics that they need to take their concerns to state or federal agencies that offer the environmental permits.
Schweitzer said the same groups made similar requests of the board when it was making decisions on coal development in eastern Montana. He argued, again, that the Land Board makes the decisions regarding the state's financial interests in such cases, while regulatory agencies make sure environmental laws are followed.
"I don't know why MEIC and Northern Plains went well back to this well again," Schweitzer said. "We handle the money. The environmental permits are handled elsewhere. That's why we have a Department of Environmental Quality that does these things."
The 36-inch oil pipeline still faces several much larger hurdles than the Montana Land Board, including court battles elsewhere and the pending request for the presidential approval needed for such a cross-border project. The pipeline, which will have an on-ramp for Montana oil developers, would eventually carry crude oil to refineries in southern Texas.
The board also gave the backers of the Montana-Alberta Tie Line some final easements needed across state land in north-central Montana to complete its project. The company told the board that it could be done in the first half of next year.
Schweitzer lauded the project as a key component to the state's development of wind energy.