By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
GRAND ISLAND – Hundreds of people flew across the country and traveled icy roads during a spring storm to attend a raucous public hearing in Nebraska on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline that would bisect America.
Some got their message across in slam poetry, other used songs and prayer.
Pipeline opponents wore red and white jerseys and silently stood to support those on their side and held up black “pipeline fighter” bandanas during the testimony of those on the other side. Supporters wore orange, green and blue shirts representing welders, fitters and plumbers who would build the pipeline.
The hearing lasted 11 hours, with about 300 people signing up to testify (although not all did) and opponents far outnumbering supporters. As with previous hearings, it was generally boots versus suits – with farmers and ranchers in jeans opposing the oil pipeline, and representatives of the oil industry in suits supporting it.
They came from as far as Florida, Arkansas and Michigan to talk about the Keystone XL pipeline that Canadian company TransCanada wants to build from the tar sands oilfields of Alberta, Canada, to Texas refineries. The State Department must decide whether to grant a federal permit since the pipeline would cross an international border.
Supporters said the pipeline would create thousands of good jobs and offer a dependable supply to quench America’s demand for oil from a friendly neighbor. They said if the pipeline isn’t built, the tar sands oil — criticized by environmentalists for being dirty and contributing to global warming – will just be transported by ship, rail or truck.
Opponents, chiefly led by a progressive group called Bold Nebraska, are worried about the potential for an oil spill in the massive Ogallala Aquifer that covers much of Nebraska.
The poster boy for the opposition, Randy “Stand with Randy” Thompson, said TransCanada should apologize for the way it has treated American landowners.
“This has basically turned into a heavyweight bout between the ordinary citizens of this country and a foreign corporation,” he said. “We’re about to the final bell of this bout. President Obama has to make a decision… will he raise a heavy hand to big oil or raise the hand and spirits of the American people?”
Along with the occasional self-described cowboy, representatives of several Native American tribes testified against the project, prompting Lincoln pipeline opponent Allen Schreiber to say, “When cowboys and Indians get together to oppose this plan, maybe that should tell you something.”
But busloads of union members testified in favor, saying they know how to build pipelines and Keystone XL will be the safest ever built in the U.S.
Brigham McCown, former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and now a transportation and energy consultant, testified in support of the pipeline, saying pipelines are by far the safest way to transport oil.
“There is no bogeyman out there,” he said. “And frankly, stopping pipelines isn’t the way to address this issue.”
But cowboy Bruce Boettcher said the pipeline would create “a measly 35 permanent jobs” in Nebraska after “tearing the hell out of the land.”
“Go ahead and send your toxic crap to India and Asia,” he said.
Bold Nebraska head Jane Kleeb said the pipeline would bring “good jobs for two years,” but Nebraskans would assume the risk of spills for the rest of their lives. She vowed that if bulldozers arrive on Nebraska land, hundreds of pipeline fighters will be there to protest.
“We don’t take kindly to foreign corporations coming in and telling us they’re going to take (our land),” she said.
But David Barnett said when properly maintained, pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and TransCanada has agreed to numerous upgrades – such as an extra foot of depth, reduced operating pressure and additional monitoring.
“I’m not talking about minimum wage jobs,” he said. “I’m talking about maximum wage jobs.”
TransCanada Vice President Corey Goulet told the crowd the pipeline would enhance U.S. energy security and meet its need for reliable crude oil from Gulf Coast refineries that traditionally have relied on Venezuela and Mexico for oil. He said the project will create 9,000 construction jobs and support thousands more indirectly.
“I can assure you that the Keystone XL pipeline will be safe,” he said.
But Evan Vokes, who said he worked as an engineer for TransCanada in Calgary for five years before being fired for for being a whistleblower, accused the company of gross violations.
“I’m pro-pipeline,” he said in an interview after testifying. “But they’re building pieces of (junk).”
In response, TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard released a statement saying TransCanada conducted internal investigations into claims of noncompliance by a former employee as part of its internal whistleblower process. Many of the claims related to non-destructive testing inspections of new pipelines before they were approved for service and the company found the allegations didn’t represent immediate threats to the safety of people or the environment. TransCanada said most of the issues raised by the employee were identified through normal review processes and steps were taken to address them.
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