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Demonstrators for the Keystone XL pipeline, right, and a demonstrator against the pipeline meet outside Pershing Auditorium near the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. (Nati Harnik/Nati Harnik/Associated Press)
Demonstrators for the Keystone XL pipeline, right, and a demonstrator against the pipeline meet outside Pershing Auditorium near the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. (Nati Harnik/Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Battlefield Nebraska: A pipeline plan stirs emotions Add to ...

In the course of three years of study, the U.S. State Department has closely scrutinized a vast number of potential environmental impacts from the Keystone XL line. It published its findings in a report that spans eight volumes and thousands of pages. Its conclusion was direct: “There would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed Project corridor.”

Keystone XL, it found, “would have a degree of safety greater than any typically constructed domestic oil pipeline system under current regulations.” In the Ogallala – and the Sandhills specifically – “impacts to shallow groundwater from a spill ... would affect a limited area of the aquifer around the spill site.”

The pipeline industry itself has been left scratching its head at the Keystone XL opposition.

“They build pipelines over in Saudi Arabia in the desert. ... The Sandhills is no different from building through any hills,” says Tom White, who is the president of Price Gregory International, which built both the first Keystone line through Nebraska and Rockies Express, a new natural gas pipeline that runs through the Sandhills. “So we’ve got experience, and we’ve also got experience where the water table is high.”

He dismisses the protesters as grasping at contrived arguments. “If you want to be Chicken Little, there’s concern on everything you do,” Mr. White says.

There’s a way to build Keystone XL with far less opposition. Move the pipe’s route. Many support the idea of shifting it roughly 100 kilometres to the east, where it can swing down the side of the state alongside the already-built Keystone pipe. Such is the request of Nebraska Gov. Heineman, Sen. Johanns, Mr. Holland, Mr. Weichman and numerous others.

It is a prospect that TransCanada refuses, at least officially, to consider.

“From TransCanada’s point of view, to entertain the thought of answering the question is to not be solid in your position,” says spokesman James Millar. The chosen route “is the best route. It is the route with the least amount of environmental impact. Case closed.”

Mr. Millar points to the State Department’s review of roughly a dozen alternative routes, which included options to skip the Sandhills and join the previous Keystone path. Doing so, State found, could be costly enough to kill the pipeline. It would also trigger new environmental review, after an already arduous three years of scrutiny. And it may not help the environment: That route would disturb more land, cross more rivers and pass over as much sensitive aquifer.

“This is real evidence. This isn’t hype. This isn’t speculation. These are facts. So the facts say [the original route is]the correct route,” says Robert Jones, TransCanada’s vice-president of Keystone pipelines.

In the next few months, snow will descend upon Mr. Weichman’s field. By next year, the massive, 36-inch-wide Keystone XL could be buried in his land. He has already signed the documents allowing TransCanada to do its work – and accepted initial payment. TransCanada pays for obtaining an easement and to compensate for impacts, and Mr. Weichman decided he could not on his own muster enough legal power to block the company or the pipeline.

But he and others continue to fight. If TransCanada won’t move the pipe on its own, they hope they can force it. With time running down, they are now turning to political and legal means.

The international debate about Keystone XL could, if they are successful, be decided in a Nebraska courtroom or legislative chamber.

Ken Haar, a state senator, has called for a special legislative session this fall. He wants to introduce a bill that would give the state power over oil pipelines, including their route. To succeed, he must gain the support of 25 other senators – and that remains far from certain. But Mr. Holland, the wealthy benefactor, has thrown his financial support behind the effort. He is convinced the votes will materialize.

And if that fails, activists have another plan: a ballot initiative. They hope to force a vote, in hopes of compelling the state to enact such legislation. Ms. Kleeb’s polling suggests they can pull it off. TransCanada dismisses the polling as biased.

Stopping or slowing the pipeline will not be easy. Indeed, even Keystone XL opponents expect the State Department to gives its blessing – and the special legislative session has been opposed by Nebraska’s Governor, making that an uncertain path.

Yet even Keystone XL’s staunchest supporters admit to concern. If Nebraska “causes enough disturbance to raise the question of is the route valid, then I think we’re looking at a two- or three-year delay, minimum,” says Howard Hawks, chairman of Omaha-based Tenaska Energy, a power development and energy marketing company.

“And potentially the pipeline doesn’t get built.”

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