LINCOLN — Amid cheers, boos and sometimes taunts, proponents and opponents of a controversial crude-oil pipeline verbally slugged it out over 7½ hours Tuesday at a U.S. State Department hearing.
Farmers, ranchers and environmentalists decried the potential threat to Nebraska's ample groundwater and asked that the 36-inch Keystone XL project be rerouted around the state's fragile Sand Hills, as requested by some of the state's leading elected officials.
Business and union groups, and those involved in the oil business, meanwhile, responded that the fears were unfounded and mistaken and that the United States needs the oil from a friendly ally for national security reasons, to provide jobs and to help a still-struggling economy.
Officials from pipeline company TransCanada Inc. said they heard nothing Tuesday that would persuade them to change the pipeline's route, as suggested by Gov. Dave Heineman, both U.S. senators from Nebraska, one congressman and, on Tuesday, four state senators.
Before the hearing, TransCanada President Robert Jones blamed unreasonable fears, fomented by environmentalists and the news media, for the more intense opposition that the 1,700-mile project has faced in Nebraska.
“Outside groups and those within Nebraska are opposed to (tar sand) development and have used the single message of fear — ‘If there's a leak, it will impact your drinking water,' ” Jones told reporters. “This couldn't be further from the truth.”
He said changing the route is not necessary and would delay the project at least two years because the change would require new environmental reviews.
“There will not be a safer pipeline built,” Jones said.
But opponents said that the pipeline would leak and that any leak was unacceptable in the Sand Hills and near the Ogallala Aquifer.
“Our water is too valuable and important to risk,” said Jim Pipher of Lincoln. “When it comes to national security, nothing is more crucial than water.”
Tuesday's hearing, which featured more than 100 speakers and drew an audience of more than 800, was the first of two in Nebraska. Another is scheduled to begin Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at Atkinson, Neb., to gather views from people in the Sand Hills region.
The State Department is gathering comments in a string of hearings on whether the pipeline is in the national interest and should be permitted. That decision is expected by the end of the year.
Last month, the department issued its final environmental impact statement. After three years of study, it concluded that the proposed route would have limited adverse effects and that alternative routes didn't reduce the risks of contamination.
Nebraska, and particularly its Sand Hills region, has been ground zero for opposition to the project, particularly because of concerns about groundwater contamination.
Heineman did not testify Tuesday but has said previously that the pipeline isn't worth the risk as currently routed. He has said he would support the project if it bypassed the Sand Hills.
State Sens. Ken Haar of Malcolm, Norm Wallman of Cortland, and Tony Fulton and Bill Avery, both of Lincoln, testified in opposition to the route, drawing cheers and whoops from a crowd whose majority clearly opposed the project. State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion testified in favor of the project.
Fulton, who has an engineering background, drew loud cheers when he said the State Department ought to “pay heed” to the “wisdom” of Nebraskans who think the pipeline route ought to change.
TransCanada, he said, made the right decision when it abandoned its initial plans to use slightly thinner pipe and higher pumping pressures on its first crude-oil pipeline through Nebraska, the Keystone I. The company should do the same with its route for the Keystone XL, Fulton said.
Emotions were high, with audience members vocally supporting speakers. At one point, it appeared that a fight might break out between an opponent and a union supporter, but audience members quickly broke up the verbal confrontation.
Opponents dressed in red and wore armbands reading “Pipeline Fighter” and “Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer Lover.”
About 120 union supporters wore orange T-shirts that read “Keystone XL Pipeline = Jobs.” Some members were bused in from as far away as Illinois, Indiana and eastern Iowa.
Pipefitters came from Tulsa, Okla.
A retired union member from Omaha, John Blasingame, said that the need for fossil fuels is a reality in the United States that won't be replaced by alternative fuels anytime soon and that pipelines are the safest way to deliver that oil.
“We need these jobs desperately,” Blasingame said.
Other supporters said that the tar-sand oil from Canada could eventually replace all the oil the U.S. gets from the Middle East and that 7,500 construction jobs would open up in Nebraska, resulting in $11 million in local and state taxes.
TransCanada executives chose not to testify during Tuesday's meeting, but an environmental risk analyst that had been hired by the company, Heidi Tillquist of Fort Collins, Colo., said the risk to Nebraska's groundwater was minimal.
In the “unlikely” event of a leak, Tillquist said, spills would not spread more than 300 feet and should be easy to see, isolate and clean up.
Opponents complained that TransCanada has not disclosed the exact chemicals that would be used to dilute the thick, tar-sand oil, which must be thinned so it can be pumped through the pipeline. Those chemicals, which would most likely include carcinogens like benzene, pose some of the greatest risks, opponents maintain.
But Tillquist said those chemicals, while a concern, are lighter than water and would rise, thus not posing a threat to the aquifer.
A leading opponent, Jane Kleeb of Hastings, the head of BOLD Nebraska, said Nebraskans have every right to be fearful of the crude-oil pipeline because there have been no studies of the impact of such chemicals in the Sand Hills.
Kleeb and others said it was sad that supporters had to bus in people to back the pipeline. She said it was clear that Nebraskans oppose it. Others said that tar-sand mining harmed the environment and that the United States should adopt cleaner forms of energy to wean itself off foreign oil. That would build more permanent jobs, they said.
Opponents also said there was no guarantee that the Keystone XL pipeline's oil would go to U.S. customers. They complained that the State Department's environmental study was flawed because the review was done by a private contractor, Entrix, that has been hired by
TransCanada in the past.
State Department spokeswoman Wendy Nassmacher said it was “totally normal” for the department to hire an outside contractor to do such review work because it saves taxpayer money. The department picks the contractor and TransCanada, as the applicant, pays the bills, Nassmacher said.
She rejected claims that the review was biased and that the arrangement was unethical.
A total of 242 people signed up to testify, but time permitted only about 140 to speak. More than 60 percent of those testifying spoke against a permit for the project.
State Department officials urged others to submit written comments by Oct. 9 to Alexander Yuan, Keystone XL Project NID, PO Box 96503-98500, Washington, D.C. 20090-6503, or by email to email@example.com.
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