WASHINGTON - A tiny town in rural Nebraska is expected to draw a big crowd on Tuesday for a public hearing into TransCanada's new Keystone XL pipeline route.
Both Nebraska officials and the Calgary-based energy giant say the new route skirts the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region of the state, a critical sticking point in the approval process that resulted in U.S. President Barack Obama rejecting TransCanada's original application earlier this year.
Environmentalists, meantime, charge the new route does no such thing and insist a crucial state aquifer remains at risk, setting the stage for what's sure to be a contentious hearing on the fairgrounds of the town of Albion.
The new route still goes over the Ogallala aquifer, follows the highly endangered whooping crane's migratory path and poses risks to native tribal artifacts, Jane Kleeb, head of Bold Nebraska, said in an interview on Monday.
"It's still a really bad place to come into the state," she said. "It's every bit as risky as the previous route."
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Nebraska officials say they'll explain to the public why they suggest, in a draft report, that the new route addresses concerns about Sandhills.
Their draft report, released last month, says the so-called Nebraska Reroute avoids the region. It adds that the route reduces "the amount of fragile soils that are crossed in the northern portion of Nebraska."
The amended route also "establishes greater distances" between the pipeline and key sources of drinking water for Nebraskans.
At Tuesday's hearing, members of the public are welcome to make statements after attending an information session on the draft report, but there will be no debate, said Dave Bunstock, spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Equality.
"What we're looking to do is collect the public's comments and testimony so that we can bring those back and use that information in preparing our final report," he said Monday.
Mike Linder, the director of the department, said last week that officials "will carefully consider all additional comments made through the end of the hearing" before they finalize their report and hand it off to Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman.
The governor will then make a final decision on the $7 billion pipeline. TransCanada (TSX:TRP) is hoping to know by early 2013 whether it has the go-ahead to begin construction.
The pipeline would bring 700,000 barrels of carbon-intensive oilsands crude a day from Alberta, through six states and to Gulf Coast refineries.
Since his re-election a month ago, Obama has been facing renewed pressure to make a decision on Keystone after he essentially deferred the matter last January until after the presidential election.
His decision forced the State Department, overseeing the approval process because the pipeline crosses an international border, to embark upon another lengthy environmental analysis of the new route.
Pipeline proponents say the project will create hundreds of jobs and help end U.S. reliance on oil from hostile regimes.
But stopping Keystone XL has become the top order of business for the American environmental movement, with efforts intensifying recently in the wake of a series of devastating mega-storms that many experts blame on climate change brought on by carbon-intensive fuels like those extracted from the oilsands.
If Obama thought punting the issue until after the Nov. 6 vote would cool the red-hot debate, he miscalculated: Environmentalists believe his ultimate decision on Keystone will signal how seriously he intends to tackle climate and energy issues in his second term, and have vowed to hold his feet to the fire.
They have been stepping up their anti-pipeline efforts in recent weeks, staging another protest outside the White House shortly after the election. On Monday, two activists also blockaded themselves inside a southern portion of the pipeline in Texas.
As it's awaited a decision from the Obama administration, TransCanada started construction over the summer on the southern segment of Keystone XL between Oklahama and Texas. It did so with Obama's blessing, a presidential thumb's up that angered environmentalists.