By Katie Schubert
OMAHA, Nebraska, April 18 U.S. construction
workers, environmentalists and company executives squared off on
Thursday at a raucous meeting on the Keystone XL oil pipeline,
but it was unclear the gathering changed any minds on the
U.S. State Department officials hosting the meeting
repeatedly called for order at the hearing in Grand Island,
Nebraska. It was the first since the department released a
2,000-page report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline
in March and more than four years after the project was first
The proposed 830,000 barrel per day pipeline would link
Canada's oil sands petroleum fields with U.S. Gulf Coast
refineries and also carry domestic oil from Montana and North
Dakota through states such as Nebraska.
Dozens of speakers from both sides of the fence took
three-minute turns before the microphone at the Heartland Events
Center. They often interrupted one another during the eight
hours of testimony at a venue more used to hosting monster-truck
derbies and antique shows.
Union representatives hailed the project as a safe,
state-of-the-art pipeline that will create jobs and bring a
source of oil into the United States from a nation that doesn't
pose a national security threat.
"This job will be done with union workers and high paying
jobs with benefits. If that isn't in the interest of this
country, what is?" said Chad Gilbert, a union welder. "My
members need these jobs."
Business groups lauded the trickle-down benefits for
Nebraska's economy, from increased property tax revenues for
local government to higher sales at local gasoline stations.
Opponents of the project from as far away as Arkansas and
Texas criticized the findings in the State Department's
environmental report and disputed the safety of tar sands oil.
Environmental groups and Native Americans said it would lead
to more greenhouse gas emissions, pollute ancestral lands and
plough through the habitats of endangered bird species.
A large contingent of opponents wore white baseball-style
t-shirts with red sleeves and the words "pipeline fighter"
emblazoned on the front.
Jane Kleeb, founder of environmental group Bold Nebraska,
called on President Obama to deny the permit. Other opponents
decried the project as "global genocide" and threw their support
behind development of alternative energy such as ethanol.
Officials from TransCanada Corp, the company that
would build and operate the pipeline, held a briefing early on
Thursday to discuss safety enhancements and the positive
economic impact on local communities.
Keystone was recently thought likely to win approval from
the Obama administration after a more than four year fight, and
after TransCanada altered the path of the Nebraska leg to avoid
sensitive ecological areas.
Nebraska's governor Dave Heinemann has given the project his
blessing after being opposed to the initial route across much of
western Nebraska's Sandhills region.
Pipeline opponents have gotten a second wind after a pair of
spills of Canadian oil in the United States in the past month -
from railcars in Minnesota and from an Exxon Mobil
pipeline in Arkansas.
The Obama administration is expected to rule on the pipeline
later this year after the State Department considers public
comments and decides with the help of federal agencies whether
the project is in the nation's interest.
During a weekly call with Nebraska media on Thursday, U.S.
Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, said she believed
enough studies had been done on the Keystone XL project.
"People on all sides would like to see closure on this
issue," Fischer said. "I'm hopeful the President is going to
take everything under thoughtful consideration and make a