LINCOLN — A group of state lawmakers questioned the propriety Thursday of the director of the state oil and gas commission appearing in ads promoting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
State Sen. Ken Haar of Lincoln, a pipeline opponent, led the criticism of Bill Sydow, director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, during a debate that arose from a routine appointment to the three-member board.
Sydow in 2011 appeared in a series of television and newspaper ads purchased by pipeline developer TransCanada Inc.
In the ads, Sydow stated that it was “impossible” for crude oil leaking from the pipeline to contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer. He also testified at public hearings in favor of the project.
Haar called it a conflict of interest for Sydow, as well as the commission, to promote and “cheerlead” for the oil industry while also being charged with regulating it.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers joined in the criticism, saying it was wrong for a taxpayer-paid state official to promote the interests of a single company. He compared it to the state insurance director appearing in an ad for an insurance company such as Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Sydow, who is based in Sidney, Neb., was not present for the debate and did not respond to a message seeking comment. But in the past he has said that he was not paid for appearing in the ads and that it helped educate Nebraskans.
His actions were defended Thursday by Sen. Ken Schilz, who represents the Sidney area. State law requires the oil and gas commission “to foster, to encourage and to promote” development of oil and gas resources in the state.
Schilz said that Sydow shouldn't be criticized for “following the laws we set out.” The senator added that the commission regulates oil and gas drilling, not pipelines.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, who had criticized Sydow in 2011, agreed that no laws had been broken, but he said it was wrong for Sydow to become the “spokesperson and poster child” for the pipeline.
It gave the impression that the oil and gas commission, as well as the state, endorsed the controversial pipeline, Avery said.
In the end, the Legislature voted 33-6 to confirm Tim Wistrom of Kimball as a new member of the oil and gas commission. Such appointments rarely generate debate, much less “no” votes.
Opponents of Wistrom's appointment said that the nominee, during an earlier public hearing on his confirmation, appeared to support Sydow's appearances in the TransCanada ads. They also expressed concerns that Sydow had recruited Wistrom.
Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson, who heads the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee that oversees the oil and gas commission, said that if Haar and other senators have a problem with the role of the agency, they should introduce a bill and change it.
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