The reason: Fears of contaminating the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast subterranean reservoir that spans a large swath of the Great Plains and provides water to much of Nebraska as well as seven other states. Opponents have grown to include Nebraska’s conservative governor and two U.S. senators, a Republican and a conservative Democrat.
Many in the public are hostile to the idea, too. When a pipeline company logo was displayed on a stadium screen during a recent Nebraska Cornhuskers game, boos rained down from the crowd of 85,000. The university agreed to stop running the ads.
Damon Moglen, a spokesman for the Washington-based environmental group Friends of the Earth, called Nebraska “the key battleground” over the proposal.
Both sides of the debate will have a final chance to make their case this week when public hearings are held in Lincoln and Atkinson, a small town in northern Nebraska. Similar meetings are scheduled in other states that would be crossed by the pipeline.
“We’re in the fourth quarter of this game,” Moglen said. “The question is, can the home team up its game and win?”
In addition to approval from affected states, the international project needs backing from the State Department, which expects to decide the matter by the end of the year. Department leaders are likely to attend some of the hearings.
“We see these as listening sessions,” said Kerri-Ann Jones, the assistant secretary of state in charge of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. “We want to listen and hear what people have to say.”
If built, the 16-inch steel pipe would carry oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to refineries in Texas.
Other states have mostly accepted a promise from the pipeline company TransCanada that the $7 billion proposal will create 20,000 jobs, mostly from construction, over two years and provide a reliable source of oil. But environmentalists and a growing number of Nebraskans are resisting.
The pipeline would be laid directly through the aquifer at the depth of at least four feet and deeper in many places, raising fears of catastrophic damage if any part of the tube were to rupture. It would carry 700,000 barrels of oil a day.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and other officials have urged TransCanada to pick a different route that skirts the aquifer, but Heineman doubts the company will take his advice.
TransCanada officials have insisted the pipeline is safe and has undergone a vigorous federal review.
“If the activists feel that they’re facing an uphill battle, it’s because the facts don’t support their overheated rhetoric,” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said. “It has been shown that the outrageous claims these groups have made aren’t true. They can repeat it over and over and over again, but that doesn’t change that fact.”