Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman on Tuesday approved a revised route through the state for the Keystone XL pipeline, setting up a decision for President Barack Obama that pipeline opponents say will be a crucial test of his intentions on climate change.
Heineman, reversing an earlier position and brushing aside opposition, said the pipeline could be built and operated safely, and would bring thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to Nebraska.
The proposed pipeline also would be built through Kansas and four other states: Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas.
Heineman's decision came a day after Obama pledged in his inaugural address to tackle climate change in his second term.
Opponents of the pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from tar sands formations in Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast, say that the extraction and consumption of the oil would significantly worsen global warming and perpetuate the nation's dependence on dirty fossil fuels.
Heineman, a Republican, said in a letter to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that his state's review found that the new route avoided sensitive lands and aquifers.
Obama rejected the previous route last January on the grounds that construction of the pipeline threatened Nebraska's Sand Hills region and that a spill could contaminate the critical Ogallala Aquifer.
Heineman said that the pipeline's operator, TransCanada, had assured him and state environmental officials that the chances of a spill would be minimized and that the company would assume all responsibility for a cleanup in case of an accident.
The State Department, which is reviewing plans for the 1,700-mile pipeline because it would cross an international border, is preparing an environmental-impact statement on the project. An earlier version found that the project would have minimal adverse effects along its route.
TransCanada chief executive Russell Girling said Washington should now follow Nebraska's lead.
"Keystone XL is the most studied cross-border pipeline ever proposed," Girling said in a statement, "and it remains in America's national interests to approve a pipeline that will have a minimal impact on the environment."
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday the agency would complete its review of the project by the end of March.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, praised Nebraska's action, saying it removed a critical hurdle to the completion of the pipeline.
"Nebraska's approval of a new Keystone XL pipeline route means there is no bureaucratic excuse, hurdle or catch President Obama can use to delay this project any further," Boehner said in a statement. "He and he alone stands in the way of tens of thousands of new jobs and energy security."
Opposition to the project has been fiercer in Nebraska than in any of the other states along the route, in part because of the ecological value of the Sand Hills and in part because residents organized early to oppose the land acquisitions required for the rights of way.
Those groups are challenging the state's review process in court. On Tuesday they criticized the governor's decision.
"Heineman turned his back on landowners and citizens who asked for an unbiased review of the risks of this pipeline," said Jane Kleeb, the leader of Bold Nebraska.
"The fight continues," she said, "even though Governor Heineman sided with a foreign corporation today and turned his back on our water and property rights."
A coalition of national environmental groups have called on Obama to kill the project, saying it would bring a rapid expansion of tar sands mining and greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
"The latest pipeline review still ignores the biggest impact of Keystone XL: climate change," said May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org. "The tar sands oil that would flow through Keystone XL is the dirtiest form of fuel on the planet, and burning it would have a devastating effect on our climate.
"The decision is now firmly on President Obama's desk. Approving Keystone XL would make a mockery of the commitment he made at the inauguration to take action on climate change."