LINCOLN — More than 800,000 comments have already been filed on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, even before the federal government holds a public hearing today on the highly controversial project.
As a measure of the strong opinions generated by the pipeline, the U.S. State Department has received about 807,000 comments as it prepares to take 7½ hours of testimony at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island.
“There are strong feelings about this proposed project, and we look forward to receiving comments at the public meeting,” said Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones, who is leading the department's review of the pipeline.
Jones, who arrived in the state Wednesday in advance of the hearing, said a good number of the existing comments have come from Nebraskans.
Today's hearing on the draft environmental analysis is the only one scheduled in the six states crossed by the pipeline.
The event is expected to draw project supporters and opponents from far outside Nebraska.
Security is expected to be tight.
No large bags, food, drinks or weapons will be allowed inside the Heartland Events Center. Everyone going into the center is subject to search.
Sharon Dreher, who owns a security company with her husband, Mark, said many off-duty law enforcement officers will be present. She said the heightened security is due to the contentious nature of the hearing as well as Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon.
The State Department received more than 1 million comments on the Keystone XL project when it was first came up for consideration between 2008 and 2011.
The process was halted before a decision so an alternate route could be found to avoid the fragile soils and high water tables of Nebraska's Sand Hills.
The 45-day comment period for the department's draft environmental impact statement ends Monday.
Although it is considering requests by environmental groups to extend the deadline, as of now that remains unchanged.
The State Department plans to publish all of the public comments online, though details of how and when that will be done are still being worked out.
TransCanada Corp. is seeking a permit to build a pipeline that would ship tar-sands crude from Alberta to refineries near Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. The roughly 1,700-mile pipeline, including a 274-mile stretch through Nebraska, would transport about 830,000 barrels of tar-sands crude daily.
Labor groups and the petroleum industry support the project, saying it will provide construction and manufacturing jobs while tapping into a major source of oil from a friendly trade partner.
Environmental groups and some landowners along the pipeline route say use of tar-sands oil will contribute to global warming and the pipeline presents an unacceptable risk to clean water supplies.
Foes also note that most of the oil is destined for export, a contention that the pipeline company disputes.
The State Department must approve the project because it crosses an international border.
After the public comment period closes, the department will prepare a final environmental impact statement, which will be released publicly.
Eight federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, will then have 90 days to provide input on the report.
Their input will help determine whether the project is in the national interest.
Once the other agencies have weighed in, Secretary of State John Kerry will decide whether to grant a permit for the pipeline. At that point, the other agencies will have 15 more days to file an objection, which would push the decision to President Barack Obama.
Sarah Schulz of the Grand Island Independent contributed to this report.
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