NEBRASKA SANDHILLS - For those who feel drawn toward the ranching life in the soft days of spring, this area is a magnificent magnet.
Cows trot thankfully out of their winter quarters toward oceans of green grass, spinning windmills and water so abundant that it literally oozes through the soil surface.
They clatter into long livestock trailers as eagerly as morning commuters on their way to the first day of a dream job. Their latest calves, new to this annual ritual, wonder what it's all about.
At the start of the 2010 grazing season, there's something else that's new to even the most veteran ranchers in north-central Nebraska.
As the U.S. Gulf Coast reels from the effects of an oil disaster, TransCanada is positioning itself to bury an oil pipeline through fragile landscape and over the deep end of the largest underground aquifer in the United States.
Those who propose to lay the 36-inch diameter Keystone XL line four feet down from Canada through Nebraska all the way to Gulf refineries say this is a big step toward securing the energy future.
TransCanada says that connection can be had with no significant threat to natural resources.
It foresees nothing more than a temporary intrusion on the latest of ranching generations.
The same goes for tunneling under the Niobrara River, just downstream from its scenic river designation.
Some in the path of the Canadian company's idea of progress welcome the project. Others shake their heads and ponder the potential for grazing disruption, soil erosion and even the disaster of an oil spill.
That was Teri Taylor's first reaction to the news that the pipeline would cross the far-flung pasture setting near Stuart where she was born 57 years ago.
"I know what it's like to reclaim that ground even on a small scale," she said.
Husband Dennis Taylor, 60, and son Tim hunker down with her around a kitchen table 14 miles down gravel roads from Nebraska Highway 20 and 18 miles from the town of Stuart, population 650.
Dennis Taylor speaks anxiously of the constant erosion threat to Sandhills dune areas called "blowouts," the direction of the pipe route and the patterns of prevailing winds.
"The northwest wind will blow that pipe bare in two years," he predicts.
"Kind of the elephant in the room," says Tim Taylor, who came home to be the family's herd veterinarian in 2005, "is the spill in the Gulf."
The Taylors find little comfort in the choices of signing an easement for the three places where the pipe will cross their property or becoming victims of the pipeline builder's right of eminent domain.
"If we don't go along in timely fashion with settling an easement," Tim Taylor says, "we can end up with condemnation and still end up with a pipeline."
Jeff Rauh, spokesman for TransCanada on the earlier Keystone pipeline that passed through eastern Nebraska, said the Sandhills setting for Keystone XL is no cause for alarm.
"I think, certainly, what's going on in the Gulf has increased people's awareness of petroleum," Rauh said, "and where we (in the U.S.) get it."
He called it "appropriate for folks to ask about and to ensure that we are designing that pipe and that we'll operate that pipe with good integrity - and that we will respond if there's a problem."
But he and Heidi Tillquist, an environmental project manager on Keystone XL, said the chance of a spill-related problem is extremely remote.
According to Tillquist, studies of such dark possibilities offer a strong ray of light. "The chance of any spill occurring on any given mile of pipe is one in 7,400 years," she said.
The Sandhills are a home to home-spun wisdom. An example is mounted high on one wall in the business office of the Ericson livestock sales barn, also known as the Ericson Livestock Commission Co.
"It ain't what we don't know that gets us in trouble," the sign reads. "It's what we think we know that ain't so that gets us in trouble."
At a time of calamity in the Gulf, uncertainty about future fuel supplies, fuel prices, and much else, it is not easy to know what's so and what isn't on the eastern edge of fragile topography.
Kevin Winter, 48, who identifies himself as a local horse trainer, acknowledges this as he leans against a truckload of hay at a convenience store not far from Ericson's Starving Stallion restaurant.
A pipeline rupture, he said, would be "a terrible thing."
But he thinks everybody, including Ericson's approximately 100 residents, should share in whatever risk goes with finding and transporting new sources of oil.
"We use oil for our needs," Winter said. "Why should we be better than anybody else?"
Gerald "Jerry" Scott, 67 and a native of the nearby Burwell area, leans back from a breakfast of scrambled eggs at the sale barn to assess a situation in which a half inch of steel separates the oil on the inside from the sugary soil and the seeping surfaces called wet meadows on the outside.
"I think all piping is great," Scott said. "I made my living off it."
He explains that for 50 years he worked as a certified welder in Omaha. Eleven years ago, he retired to his family's homestead roots, put down in the 1800s.
"They're going to X-ray all the welds," he said. "As long as they X-ray the welds and it's 100 percent X-ray, what's going to happen?"
At the nearby family-owned Ericson State Bank, Executive Vice President Jack Poulsen said some of his customers worry about wind blowing away the plant cover that TransCanada will put over the pipeline and about liability they might have for an environmental incident.
TransCanada representatives have stopped by to see him several times, Poulsen said. "According to Keystone, they have a good record of reclamation."
Having heard from them, "I'm kind of impressed with what they do."
There's also a federal oversight presence of pipelines, he said. "It's not a new thing for them."
Poulsen said the superintendent of the nearby Bartlett school district is among public officials anxious for the property tax income that comes with pipeline infrastructure.
North of Ericson on the way to Atkinson, meadowlarks flutter down on fenceposts and the scenery switches back and forth from relatively flat crop ground to rough and tumble grazing acres.
Helicopters carrying Keystone XL survey crews have come and gone.
West of Atkinson, Bert Straka, 71, daughter Susan, son-in-law Ross Luebbe, and Bert's granddaughter, Brianna, do their spring thing.
"Going to grass," Bert Straka murmurs softly to the cows and calves hurrying past toward a waiting trailer.
He turns up the volume on his voice as he tows his load from Stuart toward Long Pine some 30 miles away in a red pickup.
"I haven't agreed to nothing yet," he replies, when asked whether he has signed an easement.
One-time easement compensation - which he said would amount to a couple of dollars per running foot of his land - doesn't interest him much. If something has to happen, an annual lease payment seems fairer to him. But he knows that's not how it works.
Straka isn't sure if he will ever sign an easement. "It doesn't matter anyway," he said, "because they just ram it down your throat."
He nods toward standing water along the road. "You run oil through that," he said, "and what are you going to have? The same thing as they've got there in the Gulf."
Susan and Brianna swing their feet from the tailgate of another pickup as the cattle arrive at their summer pasture.
Susan doesn't spend much time with a question about a possible pipeline future - "I hate it" - or on another query:
Would she rather depend on Canada or on Arabian oil moguls for her personal energy security?
"Get it from the Arabs," she said. TransCanada officials "don't know how much ground they're going to destroy."
Keystone spokesman Jeff Rauh puts together conference calls with project consultants in Montana and Colorado to answer questions about the pipeline's impact on the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer.
John Beaver, of WESTECH in Montana, offers his perspective as a range and reclamation ecologist.
"We are anticipating seeding a companion crop on the entire right of way," Beaver said. "And we will likely mulch the entire portion of the right of way in the dry, upland Sandhills."
Conferring with the Lincoln office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the University of Nebraska has helped point the way to a grass mixture that includes both warm- and cool-season grasses, among them, big bluestem, switchgrass and green needle grass.
The pipeline route also steers around "blowouts, big, long ridges, areas extremely prone to wind," Beaver said.
A crimper, similar to the disk implements that farmers use to smooth cloddy fields, will press down the mulch into grooves to compensate for wind.
And if timely rain doesn't fall?
"If it didn't work," Beaver said, "I guess the simplest answer is that TransCanada will be back and reseed it and fix it."
Heidi Tillquist, speaking from the Fort Collins offices of a company called AECOM, uses her background as an environmental toxicologist and environmental risk assessor to address Ogallala Aquifer questions.
Tillquist acknowledges that Sandhills soils tend to be very porous. "But what happens if a spill occurs, the oil itself tends to adhere to the sand particles . . . so it tends to stick and stay in a very localized area."
In another type of situation, "if a spill were to occur and the pipe was - say there was standing water there - it makes cleanup all the easier, because the oil is going to float up to the surface."
Rauh stressed that petroleum will be flowing from Canada in a much more controlled setting than the one in the Gulf of Mexico.
"In a pipeline, it's a mechanically driven system," he said, "where the oil flows only when we turn the pipes on."
Skeptics are not hard to find. The National Wildlife Federation assembled several of them Wednesday for the release of a report called "Staying Hooked on a Dirty Fuel: Why Canadian Tar Sands Pipelines Are a Bad Bet for the United States."
Among the sources of concern for a Nebraska audience, according to Marty Cobenais of a Native American group called the Indigenous Environmental Network, are the "diluent" chemicals put in the pipe with the oil to make the oil flow better.
Naptha and other chemicals "will migrate extremely fast through the groundwater," said Cobenais, who is based in Bemidji, Minn.
Fourth-generation Nebraska rancher Ben Gotschall of the Atkinson area was also part of the panel of skeptics.
Gotschall said the aquifer is at risk and "using eminent domain, land agents are threatening ranchers and farmers, basically making it seem like it's a done deal - and that, if they don't relinquish their rights, they will be taken advantage of."
According to Gotschall, "nobody in Nebraska that I've talked to is in support of this."
But, according to Keystone spokesman Rauh, the company already has about 50 percent of the signed easement agreements it needs from some 600 Nebraska landowners.
"Keystone is committed to entering into voluntary agreements," Rauh said, "and we would only use condemnation as a last resort."
Rauh and Tillquist also disputed the skeptic group's point about diluents.
Tillquist called them "a natural component of crude oil," and Rauh said "what is in our pipeline is crude oil. That's all there is to it."
More than 100 miles northwest of Ericson, the Keystone XL route brushes past Newport, another hamlet near the South Dakota border with a population of about 100.
A billboard identifies the town as "the quickest route to the Niobrara." The lone grocery store has been closed for about three years. The posted post office schedule shows that it's open for four hours each weekday and for 45 minutes on Saturday.
Bob Moody, 83, and his son, Roger, from Lincoln are busy in the former Newport Methodist Church.
Declining attendance led to the church recently being sold. Its stained glass windows were taken out, and the Moodys are covering the openings, at least temporarily, with plywood.
Moody is sorry to see his church go. He speaks more hopefully of the pipeline. He cites his experience working on natural gas pipelines in Colorado much earlier in his life.
Thoughts of oil mingling with water are not keeping him awake at night. "They put these lines in with specifications to cope with that sort of stuff," he said.
Furthermore, drilling for oil in the Gulf and carrying oil through Nebraska are "altogether different instances," he said, "a different ballgame."
Taking a break on a church pew, he predicts "good grass" will take the place of "weeds and sand burrs."
Overall, "I think it's a good deal, because we need progress. And they will leave the land in better shape than they found it. And that's a big bitch around here."
A few blocks away, Phyllis Baker, 85, plops down in a lawn chair on her porch to ponder what seems to be ahead for the area that includes the ranch where she was born and raised on the other side of the Niobrara.
"The only thing is, this sand is very fragile," Baker said. "And a lot of times we don't get the rain."
If that happens in the pipeline area, "the grass won't grow," she said. "And it will blow out again."
Reach Art Hovey at 473-7223 or at firstname.lastname@example.org