OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - The Canadian company that wants to build a $7 billion pipeline to carry tar sands oil across the Plains to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico now has an official map of environmentally sensitive areas to avoid in Nebraska.

State officials said Thursday that TransCanada will have to use a 10-year-old map of the Sandhills region as it develops a new route through Nebraska for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada agreed in November to develop the new route through Nebraska to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills.

"Obviously, the applicant cannot propose the route without knowing the area to be avoided," said Mike Linder, director of the Nebraska Department of Environmental quality.

TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL project is designed to carry oil from Canada across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. TransCanada also has proposed connecting it to the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota.

The project has drawn criticism from environmental groups that raised concerns the pipeline could foul underground and surface water supplies, increase air pollution around refineries and harm wildlife.

The U.S. State Department cited concerns about the Keystone XL route, especially near the Sandhills and Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska, when it decided to delay approval of the project. The entire project remains on hold while a new route is developed and studied. The review process for the new route is expected to last six to nine months.

TransCanada officials say the company will follow through on its commitment to route the pipeline around the Sandhills. Spokesman James Millar said the new Sandhills map will be useful.

"It's a very helpful and positive step," Millar said.

The original Keystone XL route would have entered Keya Paha County near the center of the state and followed a diagonal path southeast to Steele City in Jefferson County. That proposed path crosses a significant section of the Sandhills in Keya Paha, Rock, Holt, Garfield and Wheeler counties.

It's not yet clear how much it will cost TransCanada to re-route the pipeline in Nebraska, but Millar said the company doesn't expect the change to significantly affect the total cost. TransCanada estimates about 100 miles of the 1,700-mile route will have to change.

TransCanada expects to have its alternative route through Nebraska approved by next September or October, Millar said.

Nebraska officials plan to hold at least two rounds of public hearings in the state as part of their evaluation of the new route. Linder said he the first public meetings could be held as soon as February after TransCanada submits its proposed alternative routes. The second round of public meetings will be held several months later after the state develops a draft of its environmental review of the route.

Nebraska lawmakers passed two pipeline laws during a special session in November to give the state more oversight of major oil pipelines, including the Keystone XL. TransCanada agreed to move the route away from the Sandhills and submit to a state environmental review.

The Keystone XL project is the second phase of a $13 billion underground pipeline network designed to move 1.5 million barrels of Canadian oil daily to U.S. refineries. Delays in getting approval for the Keystone XL already have added $1 billion to the total cost.

TransCanada won approval in 2008 for the first Keystone pipeline, which carries crude oil across Saskatchewan and Manitoba and through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. That portion began moving crude in June 2010.

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Online:

TransCanada project site: http://www.transcanada.com/keystone.html

Department of State pipeline site: http://www.keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov

Official Sandhills map: ftp://ftp.epa.gov/wed/ecoregions/ks/ksne_eco_pg.pdf