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Pipeline Project Pits Unions vs. Conservationists

Maybe it’s the sandhills, like what you'd imagine the surface of the Moon looks like if it were covered with grass. It could be the long, proud history of agriculture here -- field after rolling field of corn, soybeans and cattle.

Whatever the reason, Nebraska is the site of the the most intense debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a project so controversial, State Sen. Ken Haar stood Tuesday before State Department officials and said, “You don’t give a damn about Nebraska.”

Haar was cheered loudly.

TransCanada wants to build the 1,600-mile oil pipeline from the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. The multibillion-dollar construction project will bring much more Canadian oil into the U.S., but more important to labor unions, it’ll bring jobs.

“A lot of our members are losing houses," says Ron Kamininski, business manager of Laborers Local 1140. “They’re losing their vehicles. ... It’s a struggle to keep food on the table.”

To Kaminski and so many other in the building trades, Keystone XL means work.

"We’re ready to employ 13,000 Americans on the construction and employ 7,000 manufacturing workers,” TransCanada Vice President Robert Jones said. “The pumps are going to be made in Oregon. The motors are in Ohio. The pipe in Arkansas. So all of America is going to be impacted by this project.”

This comes at a time when the national unemployment rate lingers above 9 percent, but not everyone thinks the pipeline is worth the environmental costs.

“No amount of jobs is worth risking the Ogallala aquifer ... and tearing apart the sandhills. They are a part of Nebraskans heritage," said Jane Kleeb of anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska.

The pipeline's proposed path crosses the aquifer, the source of drinking water for most of the people in eight states. Almost all of Nebraska sits on the Ogallala.

The water gives life to Nebraska’s No. 1 industry, farming. In some parts of Nebraska, the water is so close to the surface that to hit water, all you need to do it dig a post hole. A couple feet will do it.

The State Department, which has jurisdiction over the proposed pipeline because it would be an international pipeline, had a study conducted on the project's environmental impact, and the study found “no scenario” in which the pipeline posed a threat to the Ogallala.

The EPA, however, found the study lacking. And a number of Nebraskans just don’t buy the study at all.

There are frequent references to BP’s Deepwater Horizon well, which caused last year's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even with assurances by TransCanada that such a disaster could not happen with a new pipeline, Randy Thompson is still skeptical.

“It’s very easy for them to say, 'It’s fine ... and it’s gonna be safe and no problems,' but it’s running through my land through my water supply," Thompson said.

Thompson has sort of become the icon of Nebraska’s pipeline resistance. Bold Nebraska has T-shirts and life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Thompson, complete with his white cowboy hat, that say, “I stand with Randy.”

The T-shirts are red. The pro-pipeline T-shirts that labor union members wear are blaze orange. Those are the colors you mostly see at the final public hearings in Nebraska about Keystone XL.

According to media accounts, the turnout at the Nebraska hearings are larger and louder than other hearing in other pipeline states.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said Wednesday he thought the pipeline was a “done deal” even though a decision from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presumably with a measure of guidance from her boss, President Obama, is not imminent. State Department officials only
say an announcement could come by year’s end.

Heineman would like the pipeline built, but re-routed around the Ogallala and the delicate sandhills. And while that may sound like a fair compromise to some, TransCanada’s Robert Jones isn't in favor.

“The environmental impact review usually takes two years or less. This has taken well over three years," Jones said. "It’s been almost 40 months by the end of the year. ... That process would have to start over” if the project were rerouted.

Such a delay would push back the pipeline another two years or more and with it would go all those badly needed jobs.

What will the Obama administration do? There are more public hearings to go. And the State Department says it is “committed to the process," which ultimately may boil down to two choices: oil or water?

Steve Brown is an author, radio broadcaster and seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.