Only eight speakers had weighed in on the Keystone XL pipeline in Lincoln, Neb., when Teresa Hobgood, the State Department official overseeing the raucous public comment meeting, grabbed her microphone and made a plea.
"May I just ask everyone to respect each other?" she begged.
Minutes before, Nebraska state Senator Ken Haar had exceeded his three-minute time allotment speaking against the project, prompting hundreds of union workers to begin shouting "time's up!"
It was less than an hour into a meeting expected to extend to eight, with more than 200 people signing up to speak. But the tensions that have grabbed the state of Nebraska, where TransCanada Corp. $7-billion pipeline project has stoked widespread controversy, rapidly neared a boiling point. Pipeline opponents booed supporters. One, looking out over the sea of labour workers in orange shirts, hissed: "Bunch of union dogs, that's what I see!"
Others ridiculed Senator Jim Smith, a Nebraska senator who spoke in favour of the pipeline, yelling "Shame on you, Senator Smith!"
Keystone XL, it's clear, has driven a deep wedge into a state where TransCanada's bid to carry oil sands crude across ranchland and cornfields has stoked profound disagreement. Supporters say it will bring much-needed jobs, pour money into county and state tax coffers and provide a source of Canadian energy that can offset oil from less-desirable sources. Critics say the pipeline will endanger the vast Ogallala aquifer that sustains Nebraska's towns, cattle and crops.
Sen. Haar cited an old saying: "Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting. And we are in a fight for our water," he said. "Canada is in a fight for more profit."
On Tuesday, he and over 800 others brought their arguments to an arena in downtown Lincoln, where the State Department is midway through a week of public meetings designed to solicit input on a key question: Is Keystone XL in the national interest of the United States? The meetings are the last chance for the public to weigh in before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes a decision later this year, after more than three years of deliberation.
As they sought to make their case in the strongest terms possible, both sides wrapped themselves in the flag. One supporter wore the red of the state's Huskers college football team and a stars-and-stripes bandana accented with a black "Pipeline Fighter" armband.
An Illinois union worker, meanwhile, stood for hours at the front of Lincoln's Pershing Center, holding aloft a large flag as dozens of speakers took to the microphone. Mark Whitehead, the president of the Nebraska Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, called oil "a product that fuels … freedom," and spoke in favour of a pipeline that would connect to a "safe and reliable energy source."
Michael Whatley, an executive vice-president with the Consumer Energy Alliance, said Canadian oil, which "is not subject to violent revolutions like we have seen in Egypt and Libya … will help drive down fuel prices for both our military and American drivers." A Nebraska businessman, whose brother is currently overseas, suggested Canadian oil would enhance national security and "go a long way towards alleviating" the stress that military families feel.
A 12-year-old girl shot back, arguing Keystone XL will foul water: "Please, save your children and grandchildren, because they will remember your choice," she implored. Helen Deffenbacher, a retired teacher, added: "You must stand for all the people, not just the powerful only, or the wealthy only, or the arrogant only."
Tony Fulton, another state senator, said "the path of prudence does not pass through the Nebraska Sandhills," referring to a sensitive ecosystem the pipeline would cross. He, and many others, made a blunt appeal: "I'd like the route of this pipeline to be moved, and to that end I would like to see the permit denied."
In front of the arena, opponents chanted "no oil on our soil." One woman, dressed as the Grim Reaper, held a sign proclaiming "Without water we die."
Meanwhile, union workers from near and far milled about. They came from Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. One group from Evansville, Ind., planned to log more than 2,500 kilometres attending multiple meetings: Topeka, Kan., on Monday; Lincoln, Neb., on Tuesday; Atkinson, Neb., on Thursday. Others boarded buses at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday to arrive in Lincoln. Unions have been among the chief supporters of the pipeline and the jobs it would create as U.S. unemployment remains stubbornly high.
Critics took that as a signal that TransCanada has had difficulty garnering local support for Keystone. The union crowd said it was simply looking out for its brethren.
"We're trying to get jobs for American people," said Bill Ellsworth, who came with some 50 others from Rock Island, Ill., nearly 600 kilometres away.
Waving the stars and stripes
Even among the colourful show of a public pipeline meeting in Nebraska, one sight stands out as probably the most bizarre. It is a transport truck trailer parked outside of Lincoln's Pershing Center, where the meeting was held. It sides are painted in the digital camouflage of U.S. military wear. Silhouetted against the camouflage are images of a military helicopter and soldiers brandishing assault rifles. Next to them stand a colour photograph of a pipeline, and a large TransCanada logo. Above it all, some text: "The United Association & TransCanada Training Veterans to Build Pipelines Across North America." A logo for "Veterans in Piping" features two assault rifles in the "V" and a pipe wrench in the "I."
The truck is promoting a program that the United Association, a union, has launched to help train veterans to be pipe fitters. TransCanada, as part of its labour agreements, provides training funding.
But the truck is also part of a larger trend: TransCanada has begun to wrap itself in military garb as it makes the case for Keystone XL. It has released a military-themed television commercial featuring the father of someone in the military. The underlying message is that using Canadian oil can lessen the burden on military personnel who have to serve abroad. It's a message Bruce Dantley, a training specialist with United Association, agrees with.
"It's all tied in to the military because we need to decrease our dependency on foreign oil," he said. "It's just great to have a source [of oil] as friendly as Canada."