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Keystone XL Pipeline

In this Sept. 21, 2010, photo, an unidentified protester who is opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline because of environmental reasons, carries signs in Omaha. (Nati Harnik/The Associated Press)

Many people associate the Nebraska Sandhills with guys in cowboy hats, and the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club called in one Thursday to highlight concerns about the proposed Keystone XL petroleum pipeline.

Ben Gotschall, part of the fifth generation of an Atkinson ranch family, was happy to oblige but not at all happy with TransCanada's plan to bury a 36-inch steel pipe about two miles from family property.

During a press briefing in the Capitol Rotunda, Gotschall, 30, said the more important consideration is the Ogallala Aquifer and "too precious natural resources to risk on a project that, in my eyes, is not completely necessary."

Construction of Keystone XL is all about "a foreign corporation and out-of-state union workers," he said.

After construction, a major environmental incident is certainly among the possibilities for what could happen, opponents say.

"For a lot of people like me and my family, the land and water is all we have. If we lose that, we lose everything," Gotschall said.

TransCanada can't proceed with construction until it gets the go-ahead from the U.S. State Department. When or if that will happen remains unclear.

An arm of government more closely associated with matters of war and peace is in charge because the $7 billion project would cross an international border.

The U.S. State Department needs to act on a final environmental impact statement and decide if the project is in the national interest.

TransCanada spokesman Jeff Rauh said he's still expecting action on an environmental impact statement in early 2011. There's a 90-day interval between that and the finding on national interest, Rauh said.

He was responding to questions just hours after the Schuyler area, about 65 miles northwest of Lincoln, was hit by an earthquake that measured 3.3 on the Richter scale.

Schuyler is along the route of TransCanada's first Nebraska project, the 30-inch Keystone pipeline that began carrying oil from the tar sands of Alberta earlier this year.

Colfax County officials reported no damage from the quake, but Rauh did address questions about it.

He said both Keystone and the proposed Keystone XL "have the toughness and flexibility to deal with those events, and they're designed to operate safely in the event of an earthquake."

Rauh was in York on Thursday for the latest in a series of informal meetings with landowners and others looking for answers about Keystone XL.

Back in Lincoln, Ken Winston followed Gotschall to the podium to hammer away on other points, including contesting whether TransCanada has the authority to use land condemnation to acquire easements.

"We think there are national security implications to allowing a foreign corporation to come into Nebraska and exercise eminent domain, particularly when they don't have their permits," he said. 

Winston said the Sierra Club and other pipeline opponents plan to meet with landowners along the Keystone XL route and to put them in touch with attorneys who believe TransCanada doesn't have eminent domain authority.

If they don't, that suggests "all their negotiations are therefore invalid," he said.

Another highlight of the Thursday event was the release of a report called "Toxic Tar Sands: Profiles from the Front Lines" that calls attention to environmental effects and risks in Nebraska and elsewhere.

Responding to questions from reporters, Winston also said TransCanada has declined requests from state senators and others who want to see its emergency response plan.

Rauh said TransCanada does have U.S.-based ownership of its U.S. operations through TransCanada Keystone Pipeline LLC.

"But I think more important than where the owner is based is that this is a project that will meet U.S. need for energy," he said. "And this is a project that cannot be built on any easement unless it's found that this is a project that meets national interest."

Rauh also said there are security restrictions on who can see TransCanada's formal emergency response plan because it contains sensitive information, for example, about tribal and other archaeologically significant areas.

However, federal officials have full access to the document, he said, "and we have provided information about the emergency response plan to Nebraska officials."

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com.

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