Greasing the Political Pipes, TransCananda-Style

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 8:38 AM EDT

In Nebraska this week, the state's governor and attorney general quietly returned sizable campaign donations from TransCanada, the company looking to build a massive pipeline clear across the state. The donations to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning not only looked bad, since the company is seeking approval to build a portion of its 1,980-mile pipeline across the state, but could also be illegal, since TransCanada is, as the name suggests, a foreign corporation.

Heineman and Bruning each accepted $2,500 for their re-election campaigns, which they returned earlier this week after the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission raised concerns about the legality of the donations. The Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club is calling for an investigation by the Federal Election Commission. "Since state elected officials were the recipients of these contributions and federal election laws are involved," said Ken Winston, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, "the investigation needs to be conducted by federal officials."

FEC laws bar foreign companies "from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly."

The company insists that the donations were on the up-and-up; it has an office in Omaha and is incorporated in Delaware. "The contributions were legal," Jeff Rauh, a spokesman for TransCanada, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "The contributions were returned out of an abundance of caution."

But the Nebraska watchdog reports that the donations drew attention because they listed incomplete and inaccurate addresses, and gave the street address of the company's Alberta office.

Even if it is technically legal, it certainly highlights TransCanada's desire to grease the works in the state. While the decision on whether TransCanada can build the pipeline will ultimately come from the Department of State, state elected officials will likely weigh in on eminent domain law and the safety precautions the company will need to take.

This is just the latest controversy over the proposed pipeline, which would cross Nebraska and five other states as it carries oil from Alberta to Houston. In July, the company sent threatening letters to landowners despite the fact that its massive pipeline project has not been approved at the federal level. Heineman has largely avoided the subject of the pipeline in public remarks, saying it's a "federal regulatory issue" and not something the state government should be involved in. So much for that.