WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), Oct. 7, 2011
The high-profile debate over a 1,700-mile oil pipeline that TransCanada wants to build through the heart of the U.S. got personal Friday, as the State Department wrapped up a series of public hearings with an event in Washington, D.C., that drew hundreds of supporters and opponents.
Often rowdy and sometimes emotional, the hearing featured people from across the country who seized a three-minute opportunity to step up to a pair of wooden podiums in a cavernous conference room and voice their opinions about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Among them were construction workers, landowners, cattle ranchers, a doctor and an Olympic athlete.
The hearing took place just weeks before the State Department is expected to determine whether to give TransCanada a permit to build the pipeline, which will wind from Alberta to Texas and pass through six U.S. states. After finishing an environmental review in August, the State Department says it will make a final decision before the end of the year.
While the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has played out among lawmakers, regulators and Washington interest groups for several years, ever since TransCanada applied for a permit in 2008, Friday marked a rare opportunity for average citizens to weigh in.
Susan Luebbe, a landowner and rancher from Stuart, Nebraska, who raises Black Angus cattle delivered an emotional plea for the Obama administration to deny the pipeline permit to TransCanada.
Luebbe said TransCanada had made "hundreds" of attempts to get her family's approval to lay the pipeline through her land. Concerned about the potential of oil spills, she said she has rejected the company's proposals. Speaking to reporters after her testimony, she vowed to fight the company in court.
"Sadly, our way of making a living could all go away in seconds," Luebbe said.
Sitting in the audience as Luebbe spoke was Jeff Guido, an organizer for the Maryland Pipe Trades Association and an executive board member of Plumbers & Gasfitters Local Union 5. He wore a badge identifying him as the 120th speaker of the day.
As the father of a 23-year-old daughter who kayaks and rock climbs, Guido said he valued the environment and acknowledged some of the concerns raised by environmental groups and certain lawmakers. But, Guido said, the U.S. needs oil and Canada will simply ship its oil to China if the U.S. doesn't take it. Guido's 26-year-old son had just returned from two tours of duty in Afghanistan,
"We need the oil, we need the energy," he said.
The themes that have dominated previous discussion between lawmakers, regulators and other decision-makers in previous months also emerged during Friday's hearing.
Opponents were generally concerned that the pipeline will increase the U.S. reliance on oil and cripple a transition to renewable fuels. They objected to the type of oil, known as tar sands oil, that TransCanada will be shipping and said potential oil spills could damage land and water along the pipeline route.
Supporters, meanwhile, said the pipeline will provide jobs at a time of high unemployment and bolster local economies. They encouraged the U.S. to import oil from an ally country, Canada, and said it makes sense to bring in more oil given concerns over global supplies.
Speakers were given a chance to approach the podium on a first-come, first-serve basis. Many waited in line for several hours before the hearing took place to register for a spot in the lineup.
The first person to speak was Sarah Hodgdon, director of conservation for the environmental group Sierra Club. Her place in the speaker line-up had been reserved by one of 65 youth activists who slept in the building where the hearing was held, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. The activists arrived around midnight and slept on the floor without any blankets, Sierra Club spokesman Eddie Scher said.
Hodgdon said the pipeline did not serve the best interests of the U.S. and said "the sole purpose of this pipeline is to deliver profits to a foreign oil company, TransCanada."
The hearing often became rowdy. Waves of people wearing bright orange t-shirts, affiliated with the Laborers' International Union of North America, delivered thunderous applause when speakers voiced support for the pipeline and shouted "yeah" and "right" when speakers talked about jobs that would be created as a result of the pipeline's construction and maintenance.
Competing groups of people who oppose the pipeline wore blue t-shirts that read "No Tar Sands" and erupted when individuals from Nebraska and other states through which the pipeline is slated to wind voiced concern about potential oil spills and environmental damage.
State Department officials, moderating the hearing, routinely asked attendees to let speakers speak without interruption and to limit the applause so they could stay on schedule.
Prior to holding the hearing in D.C., the State Department held other hearings in Texas, Montana and other states along the proposed pipeline route.
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