The last scheduled public meeting on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline brought hundreds of advocates and opponents to Grand Island Thursday.
In one sense, the arguments over TransCanada’s proposed pipeline to carry tarsands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast were familiar. They largely pitted business and labor groups who favor the pipeline against environmentalists and landowners who are opposed.
But there was an added urgency to the testimony at the last public meeting scheduled before a decision on whether to grant permission for the line is to be made.
Speaking in favor of the project, Brigham McCown, former federal pipeline administrator under President George W. Bush, suggested it was a practical necessity. “Pipelines are by far the safest manner to transport energy products in this country. And ladies and gentlemen, they transport two-thirds of all the energy supplies we use,” he said. “Whether it’s that plastic fork at breakfast or that iPhone, that’s how we get what we need. And we cannot turn our back on infrastructure without understanding the logistics and how things work.”
Opposing the pipeline, John Pollack referred to NASA scientist James Hansen’s prediction that approval of the project would mean “game over” for the climate. “This is the end of the game for the United States, for Canada, because countries around the world are going to be judging us on the way we use our resources, and on the way we choose to spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere regardless of the climate effects, which will be very severe,” he said.
The meeting was hosted by the State Department, which has to determine if the pipeline which would cross the international border is in the national interest. So foreign policy played a role in some of the comments, such as from Mike Matejka of the Great Plains Laborers District Council. “For the last 10 years, young Americans have been in the Middle East, and I don’t want to insult anybody, but as far as I’m concerned, it has been a war for oil. And we have shed blood to bring oil to this country,” he said. “I would much rather see our energy come domestically in North America so we do not have to send our young people and our tax dollars overseas,” he said.
That argument was unconvincing to Laura Meusch, who declared “As for our men and women dying in a foreign country for us right now fighting, that can end too if we just bring them home. This pipeline isn’t going to end that.”
The State Department’s handling of environmental impact statements drew criticism from people including Allen Schreiber. “These past two EIS’s the State Department did are scientific junk,” he said. “You do not hire contractors who work for the petroleum industry to give you an independent review…You do not get an independent review. You get a review that’s guided for the petroleum industry and for TransCanada.”
State Department officials conducting the meeting did not respond to the comments. But in a news conference beforehand, Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones defended the integrity of the department’s process. “I think some who haven’t worked in this area are surprised when many contractors who you look at may have worked on other projects at some point. It’s a very small community of experts who work on this,” she said, adding “We stand behind the integrity” of the report.
Chad Gilbert of Pipeliners Union 798 said pipelines are the safest way to transport oil, and suggested opponents of the project were misdirected. “Why protest this job opportunity that my members desperately need? Could it be because of the Canadian oil sands, or possibly the fossil fuels itself?” he asked. “If that’s what you’re protesting, it’s not going to change by holding up a pipeline. The oil will be shipped. This hearing will not change anything to do with those issues. This issue will determine how the oil will be transported,” he added.
But opponents suggested labor could be better employed on sustainable energy projects. “The Keystone XL and the tarsand bitumen that it is intended to support have no redeeming value. We need to start dismantling the hydrocarbon infrastructure, not expanding it,” declared Doug Grandt.
The State Department’s Jones said the department will now finish its final environmental impact statement. Then it will move on to what’s called a national interest determination, which takes into account issues including economics, energy security and foreign policy. Other federal agencies then have a chance to weigh in, and if they disagree with the conclusion, the decision goes to the White House.
Apparently anticipating that, Jane Kleeb of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska challenged President Barack Obama. “He asked us to be the change we want to see in this world. His whole campaign revolved around citizens being the change we want to see,” she said. "That is exactly what every person standing is doing. And we’re telling President Obama ‘It’s your turn,’” Kleeb added.
Although the meeting was scheduled to end at 8 p.m., State Department kept it going so everyone who wanted to could testify. By 10 p.m., more than 200 had done so, with pipeline opponents far outnumbering supporters.