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The Globe and Mail

Battle lines drawn in Nebraska over Keystone pipeline

In the small farming town of Atkinson, Neb., Tim Larby is bracing for a day unlike any he's seen in nine years as chief of the local police department.

Amid a pipeline controversy that has stirred fierce emotion across Nebraska – and, indeed, across North America – demonstrators are mobilizing. They are preparing for what some are calling "the last stand" on the Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed $7-billion TransCanada Corp. project that would bring oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast.

Over the course of this week, beginning Monday, the U.S. State Department will hold eight hearings across the six states that the 2,673-kilometre pipe will cross, plus an additional session in Washington, D.C. Those meetings are the final opening for the U.S. government to receive public input before it determines whether the pipeline is in the country's national interest – and then makes a decision, expected in December, on whether to approve the project.

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On that decision hinges a major plank of oil sands growth. The export outlet is so important for Alberta's petroleum industry that its approval has become a central goal of the Canadian government, which has petitioned U.S. officials at the highest levels.

In Nebraska, meanwhile, Keystone XL has stoked statewide controversy, as oil sands critics line up against labour groups that want work building the pipe.

Public meetings in both the state capital, Lincoln, and Atkinson, a sleepy, rural spot with a population of 1,244, stand to be overrun in the rush to give a concluding voice to the competing arguments.

"It could very easily bring 1,000 people. That would almost double the size of our town," Mr. Larby said.

Atkinson is the largest community in the part of the Nebraska Sandhills that lies in the proposed path of Keystone XL. The Sandhills are a delicate region of grass-covered sand and dune ranchland that overlie part of the Ogallala aquifer, an enormous underground water reservoir. In some places near Atkinson, the sands are so thin the aquifer's waters breach the surface and lap up against local roads.

The sensitive nature of the area has made it the defining icon of a concerted fight against Keystone XL, which many believe will leak and endanger the water supply that is the area's lifeblood.

Mr. Larby is familiar with the concerns: critics want the pipeline killed, or at least moved far away, and are arranging vanloads from across the state to come to Atkinson. Local unions want the construction jobs, and are placing people on buses to make their case.

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It has all the makings of "a volatile situation," said Mr. Larby, who has laid extraordinary plans to keep peace. He initially sought to install metal detectors at the local school, which will host the meeting, but discovered that none were available. Instead, officers will search backpacks and use hand-wands to screen all comers in a part of the country where firearms are widespread.

They've also called in reinforcements: Atkinson has just three police officers; Mr. Larby has arranged for an additional 17, some from 90 kilometres away. He's worried that competing picketers will start to scuffle, or that out-of-town arrivals will game a system that is expected to provide an opportunity for comment to the first 100 people to sign up.

If locals are shut out, it could "really cause some heartburn, and that's where you're going to start seeing some tempers flare. That's when you start losing control," he said.

It's not just Atkinson. The first meeting in Nebraska will be Tuesday in Lincoln, where the arena of the Pershing Center can seat 7,000. Supporters and opponents are expected from across the largely agricultural, corn-growing state.

Jane Kleeb, an activist and organizer with an anti-pipeline group called Bold Nebraska, expects twice as many people in Lincoln as Atkinson. Her organization has ordered 500 "cornfingers," cheeky foam fingers emblazoned with slogans opposing TransCanada and Keystone. They've asked supporters to wear the bright red of the state's Huskers college football team.

Labour groups, meanwhile, are preparing to demonstrate their appetite for a project that stands to put hundreds – if not thousands – to work in the state.

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"The message is jobs," said Ron Kaminski, business manager for Laborers Local 1140, which expects half its members would find employment building Keystone XL. "That's pretty much as simple as it is."

Those arguments, of course, been made for many months now. Yet there is one major difference this time: the audience has grown far larger. The past few weeks have trained new attention on the pipeline, as Nobel laureates voiced their disapproval and Hollywood actors joined more than 1,200 protesters in being arrested outside of the White House. In Nebraska, local television will provide live coverage of the meetings. Eight national and international media outlets are expected to travel to the state.

"This is it. This is the last stand that we have with the State Department," Ms. Kleeb said. "This is our opportunity to actually get Nebraskan voices heard on this."

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