Keystone XL Supporters and Critics Square off in Nebraska

TransCanada Corp.’s new route for its Keystone XL pipeline, aimed at easing residents’ concerns, drew some of the same complaints at a hearing from activists and Nebraska landowners who said it remained a threat to land and water.

“We are amongst those with the most to lose and the least to gain from the Keystone XL pipeline,” said Randy Thompson, a Nebraska rancher and chairman of the “All Risk, No Reward” coalition that opposes the pipeline to carry bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Supporters of the project said the pipeline poses minimal environmental risks and would create thousands of jobs.

People on both sides of the debate started lining up outside the Grand Island, Nebraska, site of the hearing five hours early in blowing snow and sub-freezing temperatures for a chance to speak today at the only public hearing on a U.S. environmental analysis of the project.

The U.S. State Department was scheduled to hear testimony about its draft environmental impact assessment of the new route from noon until 8 p.m. local time at the Heartland Event Center. More than 400 people were in the audience. The turnout appeared lower than the a September 2011 hearing in Lincoln, the state capital, where residents said the original route threatened Nebraska’s Sand Hills region.

The agency’s analysis examined a new path that Calgary-based TransCanada proposed after President Barack Obama rejected following complaints from Nebraska landowners and state politicians. He encouraged TransCanada to reapply for a permit that would resolve those concerns.

Farms, Ranches

The State Department has jurisdiction because Keystone crosses an international border.

The course now juts further east to avoid the Sand Hills region, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Critics say the project still threatens farms and ranches and the Ogallala aquifer underneath.

“Our soil is so fragile, the oil will go down to our water when it leaks,” said Ron Crumly, who operates a 1,500 acre corn and soybean farm outside O’Neill, Nebraska. Crumly, 62, and his wife, Jeanne, 60, got in line at 7 a.m. for a chance to tell State Department officials their concerns.

The proposed re-route would cut across the Crumly’s property.

Ronnie Hill drove 11 hours from his home in Kosse, Texas, to speak in support of the pipeline, which would carry bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Union Jobs

“We want the pipeline to be built as safely as possible,” Hill said, as he stood in line waiting to sign up to speak. A welder, he said his union stood to benefit from building Keystone. “If they use union labor, it will be.”

Today’s hearing is the only public event the State Department is holding to receive comments about its environmental analysis.

“What we hear today really informs what goes into the final,” Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, told reporters before the hearing.

Public complaints about the original route led to the decision by the administration to block it, she said.

The sides were easy to delineate. Opponents wore white T-shirts and black armbands that said “pipeline fighter.” They stood up in support of critics and sometimes jeered industry representatives who said the pipeline could be built and operated safely and would improve U.S. energy security.

Wearing Orange

Many supporters were dressed in orange, the color of the Laborers International Union of North America, which sees Keystone as a source of jobs.

The critics appeared to outnumber the supporters of the project.

The State Department is gathering comments on its environmental assessment, released in March. It didn’t make a recommendation as to whether the pipeline should be built. It did conclude that there was no compelling environmental reasons why it shouldn’t be.

While construction of the pipeline could lead to soil erosion and spills might leak into groundwater sources, the risks could be mitigated and the threats localized, according to the State Department’s environmental assessment.

Environmental groups complained about the report’s finding that Keystone wouldn’t significantly worsen climate change by encouraging development of the Alberta tar sands.

Climate Change

The mining and processing of the bitumen releases more greenhouse gases than most forms of conventional drilling. The State Department analysis concluded that the fuel would be still be used -- carried by rail or through other pipelines -- if Keystone was blocked.

The department is accepting public comments on its draft analysis through April 22. Other federal departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which criticized a prior analysis by the State Department, will also weigh in before a final decision, which may come in September.

The State Department will post all public comments on its review of the pipeline on a website, reversing a position disclosed in March, Kerri-Ann Jones said.

The department also will provide additional chances for comment during the National Interest Determination period, she said.

Before the hearing, TransCanada officials said they had added safety features to address concerns of a spill.

“Keystone will be a safe line to bring products we all need to live our daily lives,” said Corey Goulet, vice president for Keystone Pipeline Projects.

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