In this photo from Sept. 29, 2011, ranchers Todd Cone, left, and Terry Frisch stand by a cattle watering circle where the Ogallala Aquifer water table is at ground level, in the sandhills near Atkinson, Neb., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Cone said he still considers the Keystone XL pipeline a threat to the state's groundwater, but is too busy to keep fighting the project after it was rerouted away from near his property. Terry Frisch remains ardently opposed to the pipeline, even though the planned route has moved from near his property to about 10 miles away.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Opponents and supporters of a massive Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline converged on a snowy Nebraska town Thursday for what could become a pivotal moment for the project.
Despite a spring storm that brought sleet and snow to Nebraska, the U.S. State Department hearing in Grand Island was expected to draw at least several hundred people from the state as well as activists from outside the region who consider the state a key battleground over the Keystone XL pipeline.
After months of quiet, a State Department report has cleared the way for a final decision on the plan by Calgary-based TransCanada to transport oil extracted from Alberta tar sands more than 1,700 miles to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Opponents are now focused on the new secretary of state, John Kerry, who will make a recommendation to President Barack Obama on whether to green-light the project.
Activists said they remain hopeful Obama will reject the pipeline due to environmental concerns ranging from possible spills to the effects of the project on global warming. The pipeline would carry an estimated 800,000 barrels of oil a day.
Even if Obama approves the $7.6 billion line, opponents said before the eight-hour hearing that they wouldn't give in.
Abbie Kleinschmidt, 54, of York, said she was prepared to stand in front of TransCanada's bulldozers in Nebraska if the pipeline is approved. The fifth-generation farmer said she fears that the half-mile of pipeline that could run through her corn and soybean farm would contaminate the groundwater that has sustained her family for generations.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," she said. "But it's our job, our duty, to take care of this land."
Others are planning to fight the project in local courts, if TransCanada tries to invoke eminent domain.
"In Nebraska, you don't just take land," said Bill Dunavan, whose farmland sits in the pipeline's path. He and his wife are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that is challenging a state law that allowed for the project to move ahead.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman opposed the initial route but supported it after the route was changed to veer away from the ecologically sensitive Sandhills region, which overlies the sprawling Ogallala Aquifer. Heineman said he's satisfied the state listened to landowners' concerns, noting a 2,000-page review by the state Department of Environmental Quality that concluded the project would have a minimal environmental impact.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard also said the company has listened to the concerns of Nebraska residents during a series of state environmental hearings. The company also submitted to four federal environmental reviews and nearly a dozen state and local ones, he said.