By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
Updated 11 a.m., Dec. 5
ALBION – An estimated 800 people filled a huge metal county fairgrounds building Tuesday night to talk about a proposed $7 billion oil pipeline that would be built through Nebraska en route from Canada to Texas.
If approved, the pipeline would be laid a couple of miles east of Albion, a town of about 1,800.
A whopping 168 people signed up to testify at the hearing, which went from 6 p.m. until about 2 a.m. today. More than 100 people testified, but others left as the hour got late. Most of the testifiers opposed the project.
It was a sometimes rowdy crowd, as many opponents to the pipeline booed or applauded speakers – despite admonitions not to — while supporters of the project were less vocal. At times it seemed like boots versus suits, as many people wearing boots, caps and jeans – farmers, ranchers and landowners – testified against the pipeline while many pro-business and free market advocates and people who would help build the pipeline testified in favor of it.
It was the final public hearing in Nebraska on the Keystone XL Pipeline that TransCanada has been working for years to get permission to build across America. The testimony was taken by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, which is tasked with reviewing a new route for the pipeline through Nebraska – where the project ran into a wall of opposition. Nebraska landowners have loudly protested the 1,700-mile project, primarily out of concern that oil could leak into the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers, covering parts of eight states.
The DEQ final report will go to Gov. Dave Heineman for review in January, and he has the final say on whether to approve it in Nebraska. Then the U.S. State Department will decide on a federal permit for the pipeline, since it crosses the border with Canada. Two representatives of the State Department attended the hearing, but declined comment.
A State Department official in D.C. told Nebraska Watchdog their Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement would be released for public comment “in the near future.” She said their review is being done in parallel to the state review, but said they have “extensively discussed the information and analysis” in both. After a public comment period, a final State Department report will be issued sometime in the first quarter of 2013.
Landowners’ concerns prompted TransCanada to revise its route through Nebraska, but the new route hasn’t allayed the concerns of many of the people who testified Tuesday night.
Landowners, representatives of Native American tribes and members of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska testified against the project.
People such as Bonny Kilmurry of Atkinson said the pipeline would threaten her land and water supply if the pipeline leaks into the aquifer.
“Water is our lifeblood,” she said. “We can live without oil. We cannot live without water.”
Corey Goulet, a TransCanada vice president responsible for Keystone projects, was the first person to testify, saying the new route avoids the ecologically fragile Sandhills – one of the major concerns of Nebraskans.
He said the pipeline will carry tar sands oil from Alberta – similar to heavy crudes transported across the nation daily – and also light crude oil from North Dakota. He said the oil is no more corrosive than any other crude oil.
“We take our responsibility to build and operate a safe pipeline with the utmost seriousness,” he said, noting that TransCanada will invest $1 billion in Nebraska infrastructure and Nebraska counties will receive significant property tax revenue to build schools or lower taxes.
J. Paul McIntosh, an 88-year-old Norfolk man who grew up in northeast Nebraska, said he was dismayed by both sides of the controversy, because they seem more interested in discrediting their opponents and making emotional appeals than making sound, logical decisions. To say a 100-gallon crude spill could contaminate an entire aquifer, for example, is disingenuous when farmers, ranchers and cities have been spreading “untold thousands of gallons” of oil to control dust on roads for years.
Danny Hendrix, a pipeline constructor from Tulsa, Okla., said he would be nervous if the pipeline were going to be built across his land, but he said TransCanada is the most stringent client he’s ever worked for.
But several people questioned why TransCanada didn’t just build the second pipeline parallel to the Keystone One pipeline that already crosses eastern Nebraska.
Brigham McCown, former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and now a transportation and energy consultant, said the pipeline industry is one of the most highly regulated in the nation. He called oil pipelines “unsung heroes of our economy” because they are “underground energy highways” in delicate locations such as the Everglades.
He said much of the opposition to the project is not about safety, but about environmental opposition to fossil fuels. “Holding a pipeline hostage is not the way to go,” McCown said.
One of the most passionate voices of the night was Susan Luebbe, a Holt County rancher whose land was in the original pipeline route.
“There’s a reason they call it flyover country, because the Midwest does not matter until everyone bitches enough,” she said loudly. She criticized the DEQ’s $2 million environmental review on the revised route as disorganized, a shamble and embarrassing.
By 9:30 p.m., people were leaving — including some who had arrived by the busload — and Bold Nebraska head Jane Kleeb was irritated that the hearing was held so late that it was impossible to accommodate all speakers.
The DEQ will continue to accept written testimony and public comments until 5 p.m. Friday. For more information, click here.