GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Opponents of a massive Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline converged on a snowy Nebraska town Thursday for a critical hearing on the project, but they already were preparing possible acts of civil disobedience should President Barack Obama ultimately approve it.
Despite a spring storm that brought sleet and snow to Nebraska, the U.S. State Department hearing in Grand Island drew more than 1,000 people from the around state, as well as activists from outside the region who consider Nebraska a key battleground over the Keystone XL pipeline.
As they waited in line for an opportunity to speak, many activists outlined plans for civil disobedience and state-court lawsuits designed to keep the project from moving forward. Project foes have promised to block workers, lie down in front of equipment and do whatever it takes to stop the pipeline from connecting Canada's tar sands region to Texas refineries.
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."
Terry Frisch, a northern Nebraska who owns land on the Ogallala Aquifer, has fought the project for four years. He said he has grown increasingly frustrated that the project, which he views as a threat to the state's groundwater supply. Frisch said some landowners are so angry in the desolate ranching country are so angry that some have discussed fighting back if they're moved by force.
"I'm 65 years old, and I've already lived longer than I thought I was going to," Frisch said. "I'm not going to ask my kids. But me? I'm not afraid to stand in front of a bulldozer."
Opponents are also looking to challenge the project in ways beyond physical protests, said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska. If the project wins approval, she said, many land owners are planning to challenge the company's eminent domain authority through the courts. She stressed that any protests to block the pipeline will be peaceful.
Even if Obama approves the $7.6 billion line, opponents said before the eight-hour hearing that they wouldn't give in.
"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.
On the national front, activists are gathering signatures from Nebraska residents and others who are willing to risk arrest if the president allows the pipeline to proceed. Becky Bond, a San Francisco-based policy for CREDO Action, a cellphone company and progressive advocacy group, said 830 Nebraska residents have signed so far out of 59,000 people nationwide. In Nebraska, she said, the effort would likely include blocking construction crews.
Project supporters argue that opponents are well-intended but misguided.
"There is no alternative to pipelines. There is no safer way," said Brigham McCown, a former administrator for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the Bush administration. "I've looked at this project, and . . . I wish every pipeline in this country were built to this project's specifications."
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.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman opposed the initial route but supported it after the route was changed to veer away from an area that state officials designated as 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.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.