ATKINSON -- Public debate over the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline moved Thursday to the Sandhills -- ground zero for opposition to the TransCanada project in Nebraska.

The audience got bigger and the voices got louder in the second and last listening session presided over by the U.S. State Department in the state.

And on the home turf of the ranch families who would be most affected by an oil spill, the loudest cheering from about 1,000 people gathered in the West Holt Public Schools gymnasium was for speakers who want the route moved away from the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer.

"I truly believe this is the most pivotal decision made in the history of Nebraska," said Cindy Myers, a registered nurse from Atkinson.

"This decision to be made by State Department officials, miles away in (Washington) D.C., could well transform Nebraska into a devastating industrial wasteland," Myers said.

It wasn't the first time and it was far from the last in a five-hour session where dire warnings from women who identified themselves as mothers and grandmothers brought Sandhills residents out of their seats.

As was the case in Lincoln on Tuesday, the State Department team of Teresa Hobgood and Michael Stewart listened impassively and made notes for their report to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It is Clinton who must decide whether the $7 billion, 1,700-mile project is in the national interest and worthy of a presidential permit. Action is expected by the end of the year.

If the answer is yes, construction workers will begin burying the 36-inch connection from the oil sands of Alberta, Canda, through Nebraska and other states to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast next year.

Robert Jones, TransCanada's manager of pipeline construction, confirmed that timetable earlier Thursday.

"When you talk about a project that's shovel ready," Jones said, "you've found it."

Again on Thursday, the dividing line between those who want the pipeline built and those who want it stopped was marked largely by labor unions wearing orange and clustered on one wing of floor seating and a much wider swath of Sandhills residents clad in red.

Doug Sea of Laborers Local 1140 in Omaha was among the first union voices to call for proceeding.

"We hope you have the confidence in our working men and women to approve this pipeline and let them get back to work," Sea said.

But close behind Sea and his reference to a weak job market came 93-year-old rancher Lloyd Knox, who said he'd been cutting hay in Holt County since he was six years old.

"I and many others will donate money for a refinery in Canada," Knox said, triggering another of many moments of whistling and cheering.

Daniel Hendrix of Union 798 in Tulsa, Okla., said his members helped build the first Keystone pipeline through Nebraska, as well as the Alaska pipeline and many others.

"We're very familiar with how to build pipelines," Hendrix said. "We're very good at it."

His members look forward to building the Keystone XL, he said. He said the United States can't afford not to build it.

"The most important thing to me is this: We need to quit the transfer of wealth to the OPEC countries."

That brought union members to their feet.

In a new development Thursday, Nebraska tribal leaders weighed in.

Mitch Parker of the Omaha tribe voiced the tribe's appreciation for TransCanada's attentive ear on the first Keystone pipeline through eastern Nebraska.

"TransCanada respects native culture," Parker said, "and they consulted our historic preservation office in all their plans."

But Frank LaMere of the Winnebago Tribe sided with the opposition.

"I oppose it for many reasons," LaMere said, "not the least of which is the fact that to our people, water is life and that this project would jeopardize our water, hence, our very existence."

State Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton and counterpart Ken Haar of Malcolm asked the State Department for more time to persuade their peers to meet in special session and make a route change.

Earlier Thursday, TransCanada executive Robert Jones and opposition groups held dueling press conferences to drive home their points of view.

Jones, who supervises all of the company's pipeline construction, again referred to Keystone XL as the safety pipeline in the world. "The Ogallala Aquifer is not at risk," he said.

He also tried to give some context to critics' descriptions of TransCanada as a foreign corporation. "Half of our assets are in the United States," he said, "and half of our employees are in the United States."

Asked to clarify his descriptions of the "the lifetime of the pipeline," he said Keystone XL should last for more than 100 years if properly maintained. "The question is, really, how long are we going to use fossil fuels?"

Jones said he decided not to make formal remarks at either of the State Department events. "This is their day and they can do that," he said of Nebraskans congregating in Atkinson.

At the opposition press conference, Marty Cobenais of the Indigenous Environmental Network in Bemidji, Minn., said the State Department's use of an earlier petroleum spill near Bemidji as a reference point on what might happen in the Sandhills was off the mark.

That incident involved "sweet crude," Cobenais said, a less caustic product than the oil coming from Alberta.

He also offered his sympathies to Sandhills ranchers trying to keep TransCanada from encroaching on their property rights.

"You landowners in Nebraska, you're the modern-day Indians," he said.

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at