- Associated Press - Monday, November 14, 2011

LINCOLN, Neb. — Canadian pipeline developer TransCanada will shift the route of its planned oil pipeline out of the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area of Nebraska, two company officials announced Monday night.

Speaking at a news conference at the Nebraska Capitol, the officials said TransCanada would agree to the new route, a move the company previously claimed wasn’t possible, as part of an effort to push through the proposed $7 billion project. They expressed confidence the project would ultimately be approved.

Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s president for energy and oil pipelines, said rerouting the Keystone XL line would likely require 30 to 40 additional miles of pipe and an additional pumping station. The exact route has not yet been determined, but Mr. Pourbaix said Nebraska will play a key role in deciding it.

The announcement follows the federal government’s decision last week to delay a decision on a federal permit for the project until it studies new potential routes that avoid the Sandhills area and the Ogallala aquifer as the proposed pipeline carries crude oil from Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.

Debate over the pipeline has drawn international attention focused largely on Nebraska, because the pipeline would cross the Sandhills [-] an expanse of grass-strewn, loose-soil hills [-] and part of the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies water to Nebraska and parts of seven other states.

Company officials had claimed that moving the route was impossible because of a U.S. State Department study that found the Sandhills route would leave the smallest environmental footprint.

Mr. Pourbaix said he was confident a new route would also avoid the parts of the aquifer that sit closes to the surface, which was a major concern cited by environmentalists and the region’s landowners. He said moving it out of the Sandhills region would likely ease many of the concerns posed by landowners.

“We do remain confident that we could have built a safe pipeline through the original route that was approved by the State Department” in an environmental-impact statement released earlier this year, Mr. Pourbaix said. “At the same time, it has always been a priority of TransCanada to listen to our stakeholders.”

He added: “We’re confident that collaborating with the state of Nebraska will make this process much easier.”

The final federal decision on the pipeline will still likely take 12 to 18 months, a State Department official familiar with the process said Monday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because no final decision has been made.

Delaying the decision on the pipeline went over badly in Canada, where it was seen as a signal that the country must diversify its oil exports away from the United States and toward Asia.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he made it clear in a weekend meeting with President Obama that the nation will step up its efforts to sell oil to Asia since the decision was delayed, and would keep pushing the U.S. to approve the project.

“This highlights why Canada must increase its efforts to ensure it can supply its energy outside the U.S. and into Asia in particular,” Mr. Harper said.

He said he emphasized the pipeline would mean economic growth on both sides of the border.

• AP writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.