GRAND ISLAND — In the several years that state and federal officials have presided over pivotal public events involving the Keystone XL pipeline, the atmosphere has taken on some of the trademark symbolism of a rock band on tour.
There's cheering, hugging and a sense of expectation about the next performance flourish. But in the case of Keystone events — in Atkinson, in Albion and now in Grand Island — there's no musical diva on stage. The audience is the whole show.
Teresa Hobgood, the State Department's presiding official at a marathon input session Thursday, was just there to listen over 7½ hours to those who came to promote the $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline as the ultimate in energy security and to those who regard it as an accident waiting to happen.
“We're here today to tell you that we know how to build a pipeline that's safe, efficient and reliable,” said union official Tom Gross of Ottawa, Ill.
“They tell us it's good for us,” said Rick Hammond, a pipeline critic from Hordville. “But all it's good for is the profits of Big Oil.”
Keystone's traveling throngs of friends and foes braved ice-covered roads Thursday to attend what State Department officials say will be their only public input session on a draft environmental impact statement.
Their choice of Nebraska as the location says something about the hotbed of dissent the state has become to TransCanada's proposed connection between oil deposits in western Canada and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
And once again, hundreds of critics with rural addresses, young, old and in between turned out in red, white and blue shirts with the words “Pipeline Fighter” spread across their chests. Tribal leaders also weighed in strongly against the project.
There to counter them were busloads of union workers from Omaha, plumbers, welders and pipeline fitters wearing blue and orange shirts, many of them bearing the words “Approve the KXL pipeline so America works.”
At one point, Hobgood and two State Department peers listened to a powerful “prayer song for the people” sung by Ronnie Godfrey of the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota.
By the time presiding officials and the audience took a break at mid-afternoon, only about 60 of the more than 250 people who wanted three minutes to speak their piece had gotten the opportunity.
And by 5 p.m., most of the union representation and Keystone officials had left.
As he waited for his turn to talk, Corey Goulet, TransCanada's Calgary-based vice president of Keystone Projects, consented to a brief interview in which he repeated previous assertions that Keystone XL would be the safest pipeline ever built.
Responding to a question, Goulet said he didn't expect a recent Exxon pipeline spill in Arkansas to affect State Department thinking on the Keystone outcome. That has nothing to do with the fact that the Arkansas pipe was 65 years old or that the Keystone pipe would be brand new.
“I don't like to make comparisons,” he said, “because a pipeline properly maintained can last indefinitely.”
Earlier on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones presided at a news conference in which she declined to offer a timeline for a final decision on a presidential permit for the project.
Jones cited “an enormous amount of public interest” in the final decision, including about 800,000 public comments on TransCanada's second request for the go-ahead on construction and 1 million on the first one that President Barack Obama denied in late 2011.
But many of the key points that will figure into the final decision won't be addressed by Jones' staff and eight partnering agencies until an environmental impact statement is complete and they take up the separate question of whether the pipeline is in the national interest.
That phase will include, for example, consideration of “where does the oil flow, where does it go? All that will be studied in more detail,” Jones told two dozen reporters from Nebraska and from national news outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Critics of the project have predicted much of the oil won't stay in the United States but rather be exported from refineries along the Gulf Coast.
Lorne Stockman of the public interest group OilChange International made a related point later in the day about Gulf Coast refineries. “They already export the majority of what they produce,” Stockman said.
Jones noted that State Department officials were on their way to trying to answer oil-economy questions when Congress confronted Obama with a yes-or-no deadline.
Obama said no and pointed out that Nebraska still was conducting its own review of the Ogallala Aquifer and Sandhills dimensions of the project at that point.
“We did not finish that. We did not finish that analysis,” Jones said Thursday.
Pipeline critic Hammond was much happier about getting the 53rd speaker's number than he was about what happened before that.
“We stayed out in the snow for two hours — young, old and in between two to three hours — before they started letting people in,” he said.
The gates to Fonner Park, home to the Heartland Center and the Nebraska State Fair, stayed closed until 7 a.m. Thursday to discourage people from camping overnight on the grounds and trying to use that means to be toward the front of the line when registration began at 11 a.m.
“All these buildings on the state fairgrounds,” Hammond said, “and people having to stand in a blizzard was preposterous.”
Randy Thompson, prominent member of the pipeline opposition from Martell, was among the first to address the three-member State Department panel.
Thompson thanked them for coming, “because, after all, we are among those with the most to lose and the least to gain from Keystone XL.”
Thompson said he looks forward to Obama choosing a victor.
“The question is this. Is he raising the heavy hand of Big Oil or is he going to raise the hand and the spirits of the American people?”
Close behind Thompson was Brigham McCown, former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, who said he looks forward to a broader debate on the nation's energy future.
“However, I do want to point out that pipelines are the safest means to transport energy products in this country.”
At 8 p.m., the State Department's Hobgood said the meeting could continue until everyone who wanted to talk got a chance to talk.