LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska's highest court threw out a challenge Friday to a proposed route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, even though a majority of judges agreed the landowners who sued should have won their case.
The decision removes a major roadblock for the $8 billion cross-continental project that Republicans have vowed to make a key part of their 2015 agenda in Congress.
Four judges on the seven-member Nebraska Supreme Court said the landowners should have won the case. Their lawsuit challenged a 2012 state law that allowed the governor to empower Canada-based TransCanada to force them to sell their property for the project.
But because the lawsuit raised a constitutional question, a supermajority of five judges was needed to rule on the law, meaning "the legislation must stand by default," the court said in its opinion.
The proposed 1,179-mile pipeline would carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma along the way.
"I guess the disappointing thing to me is the way the judges abstained from voting on this," said Randy Thompson, one of the landowners who sued. "It's kind of like having a huge Olympic sporting event where you have seven judges, and you have three of them who decided they didn't want to score a contestant."
But the legal wrangling may not be over. Brian Jorde, an attorney for the landowners, declined to answer questions Friday, saying he would release a detailed legal briefing next week on other legal options in the case.
The newly empowered Republican-led Congress is moving ahead on approving the project. Shortly after the Nebraska court ruling, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill Friday authorizing the pipeline. The Senate is expected to finish the bill by the end of the month, setting up a showdown with President Barack Obama — who has threatened a veto.
Obama has said he was waiting for the Nebraska court ruling before deciding whether to approve the project. The pipeline needs presidential approval because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said Friday that Obama was now out of excuses and it was time to start construction.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the State Department was reviewing the ruling. But he said that regardless of the Nebraska ruling, the House legislation conflicts with the president's power "and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests."
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said he believed the ruling removed any barriers in the presidential review process. He also said lower oil prices increase the need for the pipeline, and that customers want "more efficient and cost-effective" ways to transport oil in the U.S. and Canada.
Environmentalists and other opponents argue that any leaks could contaminate water supplies, and that the project would increase air pollution around refineries and harm wildlife. But the GOP, oil industry and other backers say those fears are exaggerated, and that the pipeline would create jobs and ease American dependence on oil from the Middle East. They note a U.S. State Department report raised no major environmental objections.
Former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman opposed pipeline developer TransCanada's original proposed route that crossed the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region, but he approved the project in 2012 after the company altered the pipeline's path.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who took office Thursday, said he believes the pipeline will be the safest ever built. He urged Congress and Obama to quickly approve the project.
Associated Press writer Margery A. Beck contributed to this report from Omaha, Neb.