If U.S. State Department officials came to Lincoln on Tuesday expecting advice that would make their decision on TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline easy, they were destined to leave town disappointed.
The common choice offered by labor union members in orange T-shirts and ranchers in blue jeans was between jobs the pipeline would bring with it during a lagging economy and the risk it would pose to the massive Ogallala Aquifer.
As a procession of more than 200 scheduled speakers approached microphones, union proponents kept referring to the jobs that would go with construction of the $7 billion, 1,700 mile project.
But ranchers and others cited the damage that could be done to the aquifer from an oil leak and the burden that could be put on the state's drinking water supply and agricultural future.
Labor spokesman Dan Prymek of Des Moines, Iowa, was among those calling on State Department representatives Teresa Hobgood and Michael Stewart to give weight to jobs considerations.
"We're at an unemployment rate of 16-20 percent in our trades," said Prymek, representing the Laborers and Employers Cooperation Trust.
"When the economy went south, our jobs dried up first."
But St. Paul rancher Wayne Frost said the price of proceeding with the pipeline is too high.
"There's no question that eventually it's going to leak," he said.
Tuesday's listening session ran from noon to 8:30 p.m.
It began with most of the 500 seats on the main floor of Lincoln's Pershing Center filled and more supporters and opponents watching from the bleachers. As time ticked on and hours went by, many in the audience left for a breath of fresh air.
But, the crowd appeared to regroup after a 3:30 p.m. break.
In the early going, neither proponents nor opponents appeared to have a clear advantage in numbers of speakers. But by 6:30 p.m., the tone had tilted decidedly to pipeline critics.
The first half dozen to speak at the start of the meeting were all in favor of going forward. Among them was Patrick Bonnett of Omaha, who cited his own military service, the ongoing service of his brother and that of a unit now in the oil-rich Middle East for the fifth time in seven years.
"We see this as a national security issue and an economic issue," Bonnett said.
Tom Nesbitt, former superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, also spoke in favor of the project.
"Americans need the oil," Nesbitt said, "and the oil can come from a friendly and reliable source, the Keystone XL and from Canada."
Mark Whitehead of Lincoln, president of the Nebraska Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said TransCanada is "morally and financially responsible for any problems that occur."
But Dr. Amanda McKinney, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Beatrice, spoke in opposition, citing her previous support for President Barack Obama's health-care plan.
"Today I'm here to say that, if this administration cares about the health of its people, you must stop this pipeline," McKinney said.
And, she said, oil coming from Alberta won't be used in the United States.
"This is an export pipeline with oil destined for Europe and Latin America."
McKinney was dismissive of the jobs argument.
"These jobs are temporary," she said, "and they will make little impact on the jobs crisis."
Omaha labor union official Ron Kaminski said jobs always are crucial.
"Every construction project is temporary," he said.
A second session is set for Thursday in Atkinson. Similar events being held in other states along the pipeline path are a prelude to a decision from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expected by the end of the year on whether the project is in the national interest.
Much of what Clinton's representatives heard Tuesday was cheered and booed by the pro and con factions in the audience.
The atmosphere was more raucous outside Pershing as people waited to be admitted.
The anti-pipeline group gathered north of the main doors shouted in unison, "We don't need your oil. Leave the tar sands in the soil," and, "The people united will never be defeated."
Pipeline proponents tried to out-shout from their gathering spot south of the doors. "What do we want?" asked their main cheerleader. "Jobs!" came the thunderous response.
As the long Tuesday session began, the State Department's Hobgood tried to assure the audience that its input was important.
"Again, I wish to stress that the Department of State has not made a decision on this matter," she said.
There were attempts to inject the results of scientific study of the aquifer area into the discussion.
Heidi Tillquist, a consultant to TransCanada from AECOM and Fort Collins, Colo., said her work as an environmental toxicologist and risk assessor should offer some comfort to those fearful of a major pollution incident.
"I'm very confident we can build the pipeline with minimal impact to the environment," she said, "and if a spill were to occur, the impact would be very localized."
Any spill would tend to hold to the surface of water, and, according to Tillquist, "there would be very little vertical integration."
But that line of thinking, which Allen Schreiber of Lincoln described as "over simplified," did not sell well with him. He holds a geology degree and recently returned from being arrested as part of a pipeline protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C.
"She failed to mention she's paid by TranCanada to come up with these results," Schreiber said.
Nor was Schreiber in a mood to be polite regarding the State Department's final environmental impact statement, the hundreds of pages of which he said he'd read from start to finish.
"In my humble opinion, it's junk," he said.
State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm was among others to speak out against the project.
He followed fellow Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who stressed the job and tax revenue impact, and pointed out that the State Department's own environmental impact statement had concluded the proposed route through the Sandhills was the best choice.
"(Alternatives) would disturb more land and more bodies of water than the proposed route," Smith said.
But Haar, who serves with Smith on the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee, disagreed.
"We have to be concerned about the risk," he said. "It's not simply a matter of philosophical discussion."
Earlier, Haar said he and Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, among others, are working to persuade their peers to meet in a special legislative session to authorize a change in the route.
A bill aimed in that direction will emerge Monday, Haar said, and lawmakers who want that result will work hard to find the necessary 33 of 49 senators to agree to a special session.
"I'm optimistic or I wouldn't be putting in a lot of time," he said. "I take this seriously."