(Adds comment from analyst, background)
By Ethan Lou and Alastair Sharp
Calgary, Alberta/TORONTO, Nov 28 (Reuters) - TransCanada Corp has started engaging landowners on a new route for its Keystone XL pipeline approved by the state of Nebraska, the company said on Tuesday, exploring the costlier path as it mulls a final decision on the expansion project mooted nearly a decade ago.
Nebraska last week approved the $8 billion pipeline from Alberta to the state, but denied TransCanada its preferred route in favor of a slightly longer one. The decision opened the door to potential delays and emboldened activists who said they would try to kill the project through protests.
“The alternate route would involve a number of new landowners for us, and as always, we’re striving to understand their perspectives on the project,” Dean Patry, TransCanada’s senior vice president of liquids, told investors in Toronto.
The company is expected to make a final investment decision in December on Keystone XL, a project rejected by the previous U.S. administration and thought dead until the rise last year of President Donald Trump.
Since its 2015 rejection the importance of Keystone XL has somewhat diminished for TransCanada, which further diversified and bought Columbia Pipeline Group for $10.2 billion to form one of North America’s largest gas transmission businesses.
Almost all of the company’s current three-year capital expenditure plan of C$22 billion ($17.2 billion) is on gas pipelines.
Still, while TransCanada would not suffer much if Keystone XL does not go ahead, the pipeline, if built, would be a “very important” positive development for the both the company and Canadian crude producers, said Matthew Miller, an analyst with CFRA.
At 800,000 barrels per day, Keystone XL will add nearly a quarter to Canada’s current pipeline capacity and provide critical infrastructure that is required to ship the country’s vast but landlocked oil sand reserves. Canadian producers could likely command around $2 more per barrel, analysts and investors have said, as it is cheaper to ship crude via pipe than by rail.
Chief Executive Russ Girling said the company has been “very encouraged” with the discussions with potential shippers for the past week and expects to “conclude sufficient binding shipping commitments to advance the project.”
Securing enough shipper commitment is crucial for TransCanada to justify the expansion.
Girling said the company has no plan to sell stakes in the project to partners, but was not ruling out that possibility.
TransCanada Chief Financial Officer Don Marchand said the company was in good financial shape and would try to avoid issuing equity to fund Keystone XL if it proceeds.
In a statement before the Toronto event, TransCanada said it expected comparable earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) to grow at an average annual rate of about 10 percent through 2020.
On Tuesday, the company restarted the Keystone crude oil pipeline, which is separate from Keystone XL, at reduced pressure, nearly two weeks after closing the line after it leaked 5,000 barrels of crude in rural South Dakota.
A company spokesman said on Tuesday there was no timeline on when U.S. authorities would allow it to return to full capacity. ($1 = 1.2809 Canadian dollars) (Additional reporting by Ahmed Farhatha in Bengaluru; and Nia Williams in Calgary, Alberta; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Diane Craft)