Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline will "put our bodies on the line" to block construction if state regulators approve the project, a lead activist said Thursday.

"There would be so much civil disobedience, it would make Standing Rock look like a rehearsal," said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska.

Kleeb spoke after the conclusion of a four-day, courtroom-style hearing by the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which is reviewing whether the proposed pipeline is in the public interest.

Nebraska's approval is one of the final necessary steps before pipeline builder TransCanada can begin turning dirt on the 1,179-mile project.

The five elected commissioners have until Nov. 23 to reach a decision. Their review includes about 20,000 pages of documents and comments from about half a million people who weighed in on the project, either in writing or in person at four public hearings over the summer.

The PSC will continue to accept written comments through Friday afternoon.

Appeals are almost certain, regardless of the commission's decision.

Opponents say the pipeline wouldn't benefit Nebraska and poses too great a risk to the land, cultural sites, wildlife and other natural resources. If anything, they argue, TransCanada should consider a route through the state that closely follows its existing Keystone pipeline.

TransCanada contends it has met the standards required in state law, and that any negative impacts from the Keystone XL would be minimal.

"The preferred route has been studied exhaustively. It's one of the most studied cross-border pipelines in history," said TransCanada spokesman Matt Johns.

"The safety, the environmental merits of this project have been studied at length, and the preferred route has been the route that has been determined to be the safest and most environmentally-responsible route." 

The 275-mile portion of the pipeline that would cut through the state would run from Keya Paha County in north-central Nebraska to a pumping station in Steele City, along the Kansas state line. There, it would connect with the existing Keystone pipeline to haul Canadian crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. 

The original Keystone tracks farther east, from Cedar County almost directly south to Steele City.

Ken Winston, a lawyer for the Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska, tried Thursday to force TransCanada to provide more data on an alternate route that would closely follow the original Keystone pipeline. 

Retired Judge Karen Flowers, presiding over the hearing under contract with the PSC, denied Winston's request.

Flowers also rejected opponents' attempts to block added written testimony by TransCanada, which they argued made substantial changes to the company's original application.

After three full days of lengthy, sometimes intense questioning, the hearing ended before noon Thursday "with a whimper," said Dave Domina of Omaha, an attorney for landowners along the route who oppose the Keystone XL.

The final day focused mainly on how TransCanada and its contractors would avoid disturbing Native American cultural sites that might be located along the pipeline route.

Brad Jolly, a lawyer for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, challenged TransCanada consultant Erin Salisbury on how and when the company learned the location of the Ponca Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears is the route followed by Ponca Chief Standing Bear and other members of the tribe in 1877 during their forced relocation to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma.

The Keystone XL would cross the trail in two places; there is also a Trail of Tears campsite along the pipeline route.

Salisbury claimed last month in written testimony that the Keystone XL wouldn't impact any known historic properties, but Jolly pointed to maps and emails showing TransCanada knew about the Trail of Tears as early as 2015.

TransCanada handles all cultural sites with "ultimate care," Johns said after the hearing.

Jennifer Baker, a lawyer for the Yankton Sioux Tribe, also voiced concerns about a workforce camp, or "man camp," which could house pipeline workers during construction.

TransCanada has said a camp, if needed, would be about 10 miles northwest of O'Neill, near the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota. 

Rick Perkins, logistics manager for Keystone XL, said while pipeline workers are subject to random drug tests, TransCanada hasn't met with local law enforcement along the route in Nebraska and the company doesn't prohibit sex offenders from working on the pipeline.

Like previous days, Thursday's hearing drew a quiet crowd of about 75 people. 

Nebraska State Patrol spokesman Cody Thomas thanked attendees for remaining "safe and orderly" this week and during public hearings throughout the summer.

"We hope that that level of dialogue continues," he said.

However, patrol officials are preparing in case protests erupt along the route following the Public Service Commission's decision. 

Nebraska sent some of its own troopers to North Dakota last fall when thousands of protesters gathered along the final link of another pipeline, the Dakota Access, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

"We've learned from what happened in North Dakota," Thomas said.

But Nebraska faces an added complication: While the Standing Rock protests were limited to certain locations, anti-pipeline demonstrations here could pop up anywhere along the route.

The Keystone XL apparently died in 2015 after being rejected by then-President Barack Obama. But President Donald Trump revived the project earlier this year as one of his first acts in office.

Nebraska's decision could determine the pipeline's ultimate fate. 

Lawyers for TransCanada, its labor union supporters, and landowners, environmental groups and tribes who oppose the Keystone XL will submit closing briefs to the Public Service Commission in writing by Sept. 15.

The judge asked lawyers to keep their briefs no longer than 50 pages, the same length required by the Nebraska Supreme Court. 

"You might as well start getting used to those requirements," Flowers said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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