YORK — Mike and Cheri Blocher woke early Wednesday to feed 40 quarter horses they raise and train for roping in the highly erodible peaks and valleys of Antelope County.
With the animals full on hay and a mix of corn, oats and molasses, the couple drove about two hours south to join more than 250 people — union workers, environmentalists, farmers, politicians, business leaders, lobbyists — looking to make their case either for or against the Keystone XL pipeline.
The five-member Nebraska Public Service Commission limited testimony to five minutes per person and as many people as could be heard in 10 hours, which turned out to be 135. Each person was allowed to speak only once.
Commission member Tim Schram chaired the proceedings, calling each person forward to give testimony. Their words were recorded by Lincoln-based Latimer Reporting and now are part of the record that the commission will use in deciding whether the proposed route for TransCanada's pipeline through Nebraska is in the public interest.
The approval process breaks new ground for Nebraska. It's the first time it has been used since the 2011 Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act gave oversight of routes to the Public Service Commission.
Testimony proceeded orderly but at times drew out emotion, as landowners choked back tears while speaking of the generations who have farmed the fields that the $8 billion pipeline project would cross to connect Canadian oil to refiners on the U.S. Gulf coast.
Pipeline opposition groups and labor unions both rallied large turnouts and had people lined up to testify on either side of the project. Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club’s Nebraska chapter chartered buses that brought people from Omaha, Lincoln and the Atkinson area.
Judy King, sporting a shirt proudly proclaiming her as a "Pipeline Fighter," was first up when the meeting began at 9 a.m. She and a friend drove from Lincoln in a Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, arriving at 7 a.m. because they feared missing out on a chance to speak.
"I came here to discuss how horrible it is for farmers and ranchers to lose their land to a foreign company by the use of eminent domain," said King, who went on to decry the danger a leak from the pipeline would pose to the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of irrigation and drinking water in eight states.
Supporters such as Jeff Hilfiker, president of Lincoln-based DBI Inc., pointed out pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and the Keystone XL will be monitored around the clock, advance American energy security and create well-paying jobs. His company specializes in inspecting and testing oil, gas and chemical storage and production facilities.
"There are hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline across our great country. The Keystone XL will be one of the newest and safest ever built," Hilfiker said.
Opponents responded that all pipelines leak and the state's water is too precious to risk for jobs that vanish when construction is complete and for tax revenues that last only seven years. (Nebraska has a property tax depreciation allowance.)
Several people promised civil disobedience if the pipeline gets built.
"Dakota Access was a dress rehearsal. Keystone XL is the real deal," said Harry "Skip" Johnson of Ralston, referring to protests that plagued construction of the Dakota Access pipeline by Energy Transfer Partners.
Chad Gilbert, a business agent with Pipeliners Union 798, said construction jobs, while temporary, are still important. If it moves forward, construction of the Keystone XL would support about 3,900 construction jobs and create about 35 full-time jobs, according to the U.S. State Department’s environmental review of the project.
"Transportation of crude by train or ship is much riskier than a new state-of-the-art pipeline built by professional craftsmen and women," Gilbert said.
T.J. Dick of Blair, an organizer for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 571, said the pipeline will provide property taxes to support local schools and police, and the jobs will provide workers with a living wage that comes with health insurance.
"We're not out here trying to disrespect farmers. We're just trying to do the job we were trained to do," Dick said.
For those who refuse to sign an easement giving TransCanada the right to bury a 36-inch-diameter pipeline 4 feet below their property, it's impossible not to take the issue personally, said Jeanne Crumly, who along with her husband represent the fifth generation in their family to farm in Holt County.
"No one is paying me to be here," Crumly said in a commonly repeated retort to the union members.
Crumly called the Keystone XL a dire threat to Nebraska soil, wildlife and water and asked the Public Service Commission to side with the families who have been paying taxes and creating jobs in Nebraska for generations.
Fellow landowner Art Tanderup, who is fighting to stop TransCanada from putting a half-mile of pipe in his field near Neligh, bashed the easements being offered by the Calgary, Alberta-based company. He said the company has refused to negotiate on liability protections for landowners and agreeing to remove the pipe at the end of its 50-year lifespan.
American Indian cultural and heritage sites, including the Ponca Trail of Tears, would be desecrated by construction of the pipeline, said Frank White, chairman of the Winnebago Tribe, and Larry Wright Jr., a Ponca Tribal Council member.
Some of the topics mentioned Wednesday, including pipeline safety, cannot be considered by the commission because state statute limits it to looking at a specific list of issues, such as social effects, environmental impact and soil permeability, distance to groundwater, and the effect on wildlife and plants.
President Donald Trump breathed new life into the project earlier this year by approving a permit allowing construction across the border between the U.S. and Canada. He reversed former President Barack Obama, who denied the permit in 2015, saying to do otherwise would be antithetical to the U.S. taking a leadership role in efforts to decrease global warming.
Nebraska is the only state left where the company needs approval of the route to build the pipeline. TransCanada needs that approval before it can move forward with construction, and eminent domain to force easements from owners of about 9 percent of its preferred 275-mile path through the state.
Commission staff said at least one more meeting to gather public comment is planned, but has yet to be scheduled. The commission also has set a five-day public hearing, Aug. 7-11, in Lincoln. That hearing is more formal, with pleadings, briefs, witnesses and cross examinations by TransCanada's attorneys and approved interveners.