The proposed pipeline would run from Alberta down through the USA states of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska before linking to other sections of the pipeline already in operation.
"It's not as simple as a "guilty" or "not guilty" verdict", said Brian Jorde, an attorney for Nebraska landowners who are fighting the project. "Along with the Paris climate agreement withdrawal and the rescinding of the Clean Power Plan, the green light granted to Keystone XL in January that made this Nebraska decision consequential is a signature energy achievement of the Trump administration".
The impact of the additional five miles in the alternative route is unclear, but fund managers say it should be manageable and are broadly positive about the company's ability to finance the project, even if it has to raise funds through equity issuance.
The simplest choice is a yes-or-no vote on TransCanada's "preferred route" through a dozen Nebraska counties. "They put all their eggs in the proposed route basket, so to speak, and that was denied", Jorde said of TransCanada's strategy.
"While today's Keystone XL pipeline approval is an important milestone, it does not provide certainty that the project will ultimately be built and begin operating", said Gavin MacFarlane, a vice president at Moody's Investors Service. "Execution risk is likely to remain high".
TransCanada's reaction to the PSC decision was muted, with the company saying it is "evaluating" the finding.
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The uncertainty expressed by Girling was quickly reflected in analyst notes.
Dennis McConaghy, former executive vice president of corporate development at TransCanada, said he would expect senior management to announce they will go ahead with the project by year's end with construction by the later half of 2019.
The 3-2 decision comes just four days after a rupture in the existing Keystone pipeline also owned by TransCanada leaked an estimated 5,000 barrels of crude oil in a rural part of northeast South Dakota.
Once again, that threw into sharp relief concerns about the project's effect on the environment. The state's Public Utility Commission is now awaiting the forensic analysis results from the spill to see whether any of the conditions it imposed on the pipeline's operator, TransCanada, had been violated, one commission official told Reuters.
Keystone XL will be a shorter route for Canadian crude to the United States, and this route, as per Nebraskan regulators' conditions, will pass close to that of the Keystone pipeline. Crystal Rhoades, a Democrat who represents the liberal Lincoln area, laid out her objections in a lengthy dissent that could guide future legal challenges. She noted that the State Department, the lead federal permitting agency, did not analyze the alternative route. A State Department spokesperson told The Hill the agency is investigating whether the approval of a modified route would impact the federal permitting process. The pipeline was opposed by newly elected Mary Ridder, a cattle rancher from the Sandhills region, and Chrystal Rhoades, who has worked with a variety of community organizations before becoming a commissioner.