Keystone Oil Pipeline Project Divides Nebraska Residents

BY Tom Bearden  October 10, 2011 at 6:20 PM EST

The NewsHour’s Tom Bearden and photographer Brian Gill traveled to Nebraska’s Sand Hills for a recent story. Photo by Tom Bearden.

If your car ever dies in the middle of nowhere, you better hope you’re in Nebraska.

While working on a story about the Keystone XL pipeline project, photographer Brian Gill and I stopped alongside a rural road to shoot video of the Sand Hills, a sprawling area of prairie and sand dunes in northern Nebraska. During the brief time we were there, three motorists stopped to ask if we were in trouble and needed a ride. Over the years, we’ve parked along many roads in many different states, but this was the first time anybody had stopped to help.

That sentiment does not extend to the pipeline project though. Many Nebraskans have little interest in helping TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline, which would stretch 1,700 miles from northern Alberta to Texas. The Canadian company wants to transport billions of barrels of oil from the Tar Sands region in Alberta to refineries in Houston. The proposed route would go right through the Sand Hills and on top of the Ogallala aquifer, which is the major source of water for much of the agricultural Midwest.

Opponents wearing red T-shirts gave the State Department an earful during two late-September public hearings in Lincoln and Atkinson, Neb. They believe that an accident is inevitable and that the pipeline poses a serious risk to the all-important water supply. They also claim the oil will be of little benefit to Americans, because it will be exported.

But others in Nebraska want the pipeline built as soon as possible, because it will create badly-needed construction jobs. Union members wearing orange T-shirts turned out in force to show their support for the project. Both sides accused the other of busing out-of-staters to the hearings in order to artificially inflate their numbers.

TransCanada says this will be the safest pipeline in the U.S., or anywhere else, for that matter. They point to the fact that the State Department’s Final Environmental Impact Statement says it can be operated without endangering the environment. TransCanada Vice-President Robert Jones also told us that the U.S. will benefit from having a reliable source of oil from a friendly neighbor. The claim that the oil would wind up overseas doesn’t make economic sense, he said.

The State Department spent the last three years writing the impact statement and has held public hearings in all six states that the pipeline will cross to get citizen input before making a final decision.

We’ll explore these issues in the story that Producer Mary Jo Books, Photographer Brian Gill, Editor Tim Smith, and I prepared for Monday’s NewsHour.

Correction: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated where two public hearings on the Keystone XL pipeline project were held. They were held in Atkinson, Neb. and Lincoln, Neb.