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Nebraska hearing vitrifies Keystone XL pipeline debate

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(Read caption) The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would run through this snow-covered field near Bradshaw, Neb. The pipeline serves as a proxy for a broader argument over the role of energy and environment in America's future.

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For half a decade, Americans have debated the potential risks and rewards of a pipeline that would carry oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. The back-and-forth comes to a head Thursday in Grand Island, Neb., as the State Department holds a public hearing on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Even heavy, late-season snow couldn't keep pipeline supporters and critics from making their voice heard. They lined up outside the hearing hours in advance Thursday morning, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

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If the passionate, opposing sides agree on anything, it's that the debate is about more than just a pipeline.

Keystone XL rests squarely at the intersection of energy security, environmental stewardship, and economic growth, making it a useful proxy for a broader argument over the role of energy and environment in America's future.

The sluggish economy has only cemented Keystone's symbolic role. Environmentalists seize upon the carbon-intensive project as a way to keep environmental concerns part of a political discussion dominated by fiscal cliffs and sequestration. Keystone supporters say the White House's failure to approve the $7.6 billion line more than a year ago is one example of how the Obama administration has missed opportunities to boost the economy by encouraging fossil fuel production.  

A broad range of issues are at play. Would blocking Keystone be a diplomatic snub to our ally to the north? Would building it mean an economic boon or an environmental disaster? Does the recent Arkansas pipeline spill demonstrate inherent risks of transporting heavy crude?

People have opinions – at least 807,000 of them. That's how many comments the US State Department has received during the public comment period on the project's most recent draft environmental review, released last month. It's almost as many as the 1 million comments the agency received during the pipeline's first environmental review.

Reports from the area suggest that Nebraskans are as divided on Keystone as is the rest of the country. 

"The great global skirmishes of this century will be fought over food, energy, water and dirt," Mary Pipher, a psychologist from Nebraska, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "Our remote, conservative, flyover state seems like an odd place to make a stand for clean water and fertile land, but we will be at the heart of those battles."

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Ms. Pipher worries about pipeline spills, but other Nebraskans are less concerned.

“I’m not really worried about it,” Terri Funk, a farmer who lives 1,000 feet from the pipeline's path, told the Associated Press. “It’s planting season right now, and we’ve got better things to do.”

It's not the first time Nebraska has served as ground zero for the debate. An application for the pipeline was initially rejected in 2008 after Nebraskans raised concerns that the pipeline would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, an important water source for the state.

TransCanada, the Canadian company behind the project, revised the pipeline's route and reapplied for the presidential permit it needs to begin construction. After the public comment period closes Monday, the State Department will issue a final environmental review.

Two-thirds of Americans support the pipeline, according to a recent Pew study. In March, Senators voted 62 to 37 in favor of the pipeline.

In the end, it is up to the State Department and the White House to decide if Keystone XL is in the national interest. That decision is expected to come sometime this summer.