GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — A pipeline builder stood among pipeline fighters Thursday and tried his best to persuade the State Department to approve the controversial Keystone XL crude oil pipeline.
Chad Gilbert, a welder from Mancos, Colo., said the track record proves that pipelines move oil more safely than trucks, trains or ships.
He testified Thursday during the final public hearing on a proposal to transport 830,000 barrels of tar-sands crude daily from western Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Part of the route would cross Nebraska.
“Yes, we are real people seeking real work,” said Gilbert, representing a pipeline builders union with members in Nebraska. “If that's not in the national interest, what is?”
As he spoke, many in the crowd held up black armbands printed with the words, “pipeline fighter.” During such displays, it was clear that pipeline opponents outnumbered the supporters.
When it was their turn at the microphone, the opponents argued that the pipeline threatens to contaminate the water that supports life, livestock and livelihoods.
“We Nebraskans will bear the risk forever,” said Meghan Hammond, 25, who farms family land in York County that would be crossed by the underground pipeline.
And so, the final public debate in Grand Island sounded much like other debates over the Keystone XL that have come before. It boiled down to jobs and energy security versus private property rights and environmental protection.
The 1,700-mile route includes 274 miles through Nebraska.
Despite hazardous wintry driving conditions, hundreds showed up at the Heartland Events Center to comment on the State Department's draft environmental assessment of the pipeline.
Although the department did not take a head count as people passed through a metal detector at the entrance, most of the 700 floor seats were quickly filled, along with scores of additional seats on the sides of the arena.
The hearing lasted 10½ hours, and about 200 people testified. Their input will be added to the 807,000 comments that have already been submitted on the controversial project.
Not all testifiers gave speeches. One speaker offered poetry, one performed a Native American prayer song and another sang an anti-pipeline ode to the melody of “Blowin' in the Wind.”
Another pipeline opponent walked through the arena in a polar bear suit, alluding to a contention by environmentalists that further development of Canada's tar-sands region will contribute substantially to greenhouse gas emissions.
But there were also moments marked by raised voices, frustration and palpable anger, especially among those who sense that pipeline approval is a foregone conclusion — given the lack of environmental red flags raised by the State Department's March 1 draft assessment.
“I'm going to lay down in front of them damn Caterpillars and let them run me over to keep this from being built,” said Ernie Fellows of Keya Paha County in northern Nebraska.
The exercise felt like déjà vu for many participants, given that the State Department gathered extensive public comments on the proposal in 2010 and 2011.
But the department halted the review process in late 2011, citing concerns that the pipeline posed a threat to the fragile soils and high water tables of the Nebraska Sand Hills.
Under executive order, the State Department must determine if the project is in the national interest because it crosses an international border.
TransCanada Corp., the company that wants to build the pipeline, moved the route last year to avoid the Sand Hills. Gov. Dave Heineman approved the rerouting in January, after the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality determined that groundwater contamination from any spills would most likely be local rather than regional.
Three landowners have since filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law that allowed the governor's approval.
During Thursday's hearing, several opponents called the state and federal environmental reviews incomplete because they didn't model what a “worst-case scenario” spill could do to groundwater, rivers or lakes.
They also criticized the agencies for contracting with private consultants who had formerly worked for the oil industry. One of the State Department's consultants worked for TransCanada in the past.
“It seems your environmental impact statement has as many holes as these pipelines that keep leaking in the news today,” said Jim Tarnick, a farmer and rancher near Fullerton.
Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state in charge of the federal pipeline review, said the department screens consultants for possible conflicts of interests.
She said there are a relatively small number of private professionals in the field, so it's not uncommon for them to have worked for the petroleum industry in the past.
“We don't feel the report is compromised in any way,” she said.
The public comment period on the draft environmental report closes Monday.
After that, the department will prepare a final report and submit it to eight federal agencies, which will have up to 90 days to provide their input. Then Secretary of State John Kerry will make a decision on the permit.
Thursday's hearing was the only one the department scheduled along the route of the pipeline, which crosses parts of six states.
Among those testifying in support were state and local economic development officials and a slew of representatives from the petroleum industry. They repeated common themes that the nation needs the jobs and the oil from a friendly trade partner.
But perhaps the most common testifiers were the Nebraska landowners who said the pipeline route crosses their property.
Bonny Kilmurry, one such landowner in Holt County, said the whole process has made her feel powerless and abandoned.
“When this man-made pipeline fails, who will clean our water?” she asked.
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