YORK, Neb. — The young rancher had just finished telling a Nebraska regulatory board why it should reject a route for the Keystone XL pipeline Wednesday when he boosted his 8-year-old son up to the microphone.
“I don’t want no pipeline,” Dalton Kopecky said to applause from other opponents of the controversial oil project. Kerry Kopecky of O’Neill then lifted his 5-year-old son, Dallas.
“No oil in our water,” the boy said.
The lighter moment broke up a heavy day of testimony before the Nebraska Public Service Commission at the Holthus Convention Center in York. The five-member elected commission must decide whether the proposed route of the pipeline serves the public interest.
Fifth-generation farmer Robert Johnston of Clearwater said he would welcome the tax revenues the pipeline would generate for schools and government services in Antelope County. He explained that the pipeline route crosses a homestead site established by his great-great-grandfather.
“I will not allow anything to hurt this land,” he said. “I do not — I repeat, do not — think this pipeline will hurt my land.”
About 135 people spoke during the 10-hour meeting, but the overall turnout was lower than expected. Commission staff estimated that 270 people took seats in a hall set up with 500 chairs.
The meeting generated testimony from farmers and ranchers, pipefitters and electricians, teachers and former state senators. Some — especially the opponents — delivered statements with passion and emotion.
One preached a moral case for rejection, one shouted a theory that the pipeline is really intended to steal Nebraska water, while others struggled to utter a word through tears. Early in the day, a pipeline opponent and a labor union leader engaged in a yelling match that roiled the crowd.
Authorities set up a security checkpoint at the entrance. State, county and city police maintained a presence in the convention center throughout the day, although they said people were civil and there were no incidents
The meeting was similar to numerous public hearings across the state during the nine-year fight over the Keystone XL. As in the past, it was apparent Wednesday that the project has split landowners and environmentalists who oppose the project from laborers and tradesmen who support it.
“It helps my family, it puts food on the table,” said Lucio Tellez of Omaha, a member of Laborers International Union of North America.
“Leave our water alone, leave our Sand Hills alone, leave our livelihoods alone,” said Susan Straka-Heyden, a rancher from Stuart.
President Donald Trump recently granted TransCanada Corp. a federal permit to build the pipeline, essentially reversing the 2015 rejection of the project by former President Barack Obama. But the project still needs to secure route approval in Nebraska.
Earlier this year, the company asked the PSC to authorize a route approved by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and then-Gov. Dave Heineman in 2013.
TransCanada has been trying since 2008 to build the 36-inch pipeline to ship 830,000 barrels per day of a thick crude oil — some call it tar sands — from western Canada.
Comments collected Wednesday will become part of the record leading to a formal five-day hearing in August, which the PSC has reserved only for pre-approved intervenors. A final decision on the application is not expected sooner than late September.
Commission Chairman Tim Schram said an additional public meeting will be scheduled, although a date and location have not been determined.
Several pipeline opponents urged the commissioners not to allow a foreign company to profit by using eminent domain to take land rights from private property owners in Nebraska. The company has reached easement agreements with about 90 percent of the more than 500 landowners on the proposed route in Nebraska.
“We know what it’s like to have a foreign entity come in and take our land,” said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. The route crosses the tribal homelands of the Ponca and could destroy or disturb graves or unmarked cultural sites, he said.
Some said that if Keystone XL must be built, the company should place it along an existing pipeline on right-of-way the company owns in eastern Nebraska.
“You have the opportunity to site this pipeline where it would do the least amount of damage,” said Janece Mollhoff of Ashland.
But many argued that the pipeline should be rejected outright.
Terry Johnson of Ralston predicted that the civil disobedience that would result from approval of the project in Nebraska would make the mass protests that accompanied the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota look like a “dress rehearsal.”
“Do we want to be a tar sands interstate in Nebraska? I don’t think so,” he said.
Others pointed out that a major spill in the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge store of underground water beneath the Sand Hills, could financially devastate the ranchers and farmers who rely on the water. They said the same about a spill in the Missouri or Platte Rivers, which provide drinking water to Omaha and Lincoln.
Although they were steeply outnumbered by opponents, pipeline supporters said the project represents the safest way to transport oil. The volume of oil that could be moved each day by Keystone XL would fill 4,150 trucks or 1,185 railcars, said Michael Whatley of the Consumer Energy Alliance, a business group that supports the project.
Mike Flood of Norfolk, a former speaker of the Legislature, said pipelines are 450 times safer than rail transportation of oil.
“That’s a number that tells a story Nebraskans need to hear,” he said.
Several union representatives said during their testimony that they care about clean water. They argued that they have the skill to safely build the project.
Others addressed a common criticism of Keystone XL: Any construction jobs created by the project would be temporary. Skilled workers frequently move from project to project, they said.
“If you’re going to work construction, you’re going to work part time or you’re not going to work at all,” responded Jack Mantz of Omaha, a 78-year-old maintenance worker and union member.
Skip DeBusk of Papillion said most farmers use fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the same groundwater they say they care so much about. A software engineer who said he served in Iraq with the Air Force, DeBusk said he would rather see the United States get oil from Canada than the Middle East.
“I don’t want to send my son or daughter off to fight another war for energy resources,” he said.
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