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Backers, opponents of giant Keystone XL pipeline face off in Nebraska

Increasingly polarized as the bitter fight over the Keystone XL pipeline drags on, backers and opponents of the 1,700-mile project met in the same place yesterday for the only federal public hearing scheduled before the Obama administration decides whether to allow its construction.

The gulf between them was larger than the ice- and snow-covered Heartland Events Center, the state fairgrounds in
Nebraska where nearly 1,000 people braved a late April snowstorm to testify to State Department officials. Even the smallest points were hotly contested throughout the all-day hearing and in dueling news conferences preceding it.

But there is no missing the huge stakes in the $5.3 billion pipeline for TransCanada, the company that wants to send as much as 830,000 barrels of diluted bitumen oil each day from Alberta’s oil sands to U.S. refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, or for environmentalists, who are making a stand over climate change, aquifer safety and other issues. Labor, which hopes to gain 3,900 pipeline construction jobs, and landowners, who were on both sides of the issue yesterday, were also well represented.

The Obama administration wants to reduce U.S. reliance on oil from the Middle East and elsewhere without alienating environmentalists or creating friction with the Canadian government, which supports the project.

That may be difficult. “When your bulldozers try to cross our line in the state of Nebraska, every single person will be there to say ‘No!’ ” Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska and a leader of the opposition, testified. Hundreds of opponents wearing black “Pipeline Fighter” armbands cheered her wildly.

But Brigham McCown, a former acting head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and now a consultant to pipeline backers, said 2.6 million miles of pipeline are currently moving energy, chemicals and water safely around the United States. About 13.5 billion barrels of oil were transported in 2012, McCown said, far more safely than by any other method.

Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether the pipeline is in the United States’s national interest and make a recommendation to the president. The department held the hearing because the pipeline will cross a U.S. border and already has received more than 800,000 comments, said Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of the department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Jones said all comments received by Monday will be posted online.

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