By Lisa Song, InsideClimate News
ATKINSON, Neb.—People began arriving at West Holt Junior-Senior High School before noon on Thursday, some in pickups or cars from nearby ranches and farms, others in buses charted by the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) or by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that favors free markets. By 3 p.m., they had formed a long line that snaked into the parking lot outside the gymnasium, ready to tell the U.S. State Department what they thought of the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would pump Canadian crude oil through Nebraska on its way to the Gulf Coast.
About 1,000 people showed up for the hearing, which was scheduled to run from 4:30 to 10 p.m. About 160 registered to speak, and the meeting was extended until 11 p.m. so most of them could be accommodated.
Union members spoke about energy security and the jobs the pipeline would bring. A LiUNA member told the audience that his union employs skilled laborers who would build “the best” pipeline humanly possible. Another said that while he doesn’t like the idea of oil spills, he was “realistic” about America’s oil dependence, and he would rather buy oil from Canada than the Middle East.
Local landowners spoke about the risk of putting an oil pipeline through the Nebraska sandhills, an ecologically sensitive area about 10 miles from Atkinson. A fifth-generation rancher said an oil spill would jeopardize her land and her children’s future. The current route is “just wrong,” she said.
Another landowner said he understood the union members’ need for jobs, but added that the laborers could still build the pipeline if it was rerouted out of the sandhills. “On the other hand we Nebraskans are stuck with the consequences” if there’s an oil spill, he said.
“The water in this ground is more valuable than all the oil” in the world, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.