Keystone XL opponents brace for protests in Neb.

Thursday - 4/18/2013, 6:13pm EDT

In this photo from Sept. 29, 2011, ranchers Todd Cone, left, and Terry Frisch stand by a cattle watering circle where the Ogallala Aquifer water table is at ground level, in the sandhills near Atkinson, Neb., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Cone said he still considers the Keystone XL pipeline a threat to the state's groundwater, but is too busy to keep fighting the project after it was rerouted away from near his property. Terry Frisch remains ardently opposed to the pipeline, even though the planned route has moved from near his property to about 10 miles away.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

GRANT SCHULTE
Associated Press

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) -- Opponents of a massive Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline converged on a snowy Nebraska town Thursday for a critical hearing on the project, but they already were preparing for acts of civil disobedience should President Barack Obama approve it.

Despite a spring storm that brought sleet and snow to Nebraska, the U.S. State Department hearing in Grand Island drew more than 1,000 supporters and opponents from around the state, as well as activists from outside the region who consider Nebraska a key battleground over the Keystone XL pipeline.

As they waited for an opportunity to speak at the Heartland Events Center on the state fairgrounds, many activists outlined plans for civil disobedience and state-court lawsuits designed to keep the project from moving forward. Project foes have promised to block construction workers and lie down in front of equipment -- whatever it takes to stop the $7.6 billion pipeline from connecting Canada's tar sands region to Texas refineries.

"If this government makes a huge, huge mistake in preventing this pipeline, with the influence of the Canadian government and big oil, we the people will not allow this pipeline to be built," Nebraska rancher Bruce Boettcher told State Department representatives.

Abbi Kleinschmidt, 54, of rural York, said she was prepared to stand in front of TransCanada's bulldozers in Nebraska if the pipeline is approved. The fifth-generation farmer said she fears that the half-mile of pipeline that could run through her corn and soybean farm would contaminate the groundwater that has sustained her family for generations.

"I hope it doesn't come to that," she said. "But it's our job, our duty, to take care of this land."

Terry Frisch, a northern Nebraska rancher who owns land on the Ogallala Aquifer, has fought the project for four years. He said he has grown increasingly frustrated that the project, which he views as a threat to the state's groundwater supply. Frisch said some landowners in the desolate ranching country are so angry that some have talked about fighting back if they're moved by force.

"I'm 65 years old, and I've already lived longer than I thought I was going to," Frisch said. "I'm not going to ask my kids. But me? I'm not afraid to stand in front of a bulldozer."

Opponents are also looking to challenge the project in ways beyond physical protests, said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska. If the project wins approval, she said, many land owners are planning to challenge the company's eminent domain authority through the courts. She said any protests to block the pipeline will be peaceful.

On the national front, activists are gathering signatures from Nebraska residents and others who are willing to risk arrest if the president allows the pipeline to proceed. Becky Bond, a San Francisco-based policy for CREDO Action, a cellphone company and progressive advocacy group, said 830 Nebraska residents have signed so far out of 59,000 people nationwide. In Nebraska, she said, the effort would likely include blocking construction crews.

Project supporters argue that opponents are well-intended but misguided. TransCanada said the company voluntarily agreed to safeguards that exceed federal regulations. The project is backed by several unions that represent Iowa and Nebraska workers, and union leaders say they've enjoyed a good working relationship with the company.

"There is no alternative to pipelines. There is no safer way," said Brigham McCown, a former administrator for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the Bush administration. "I've looked at this project, and . . . I wish every pipeline in this country were built to this project's specifications."

Environmental activists previously staged protests at the White House, in which they were arrested for handcuffing themselves to the front gate. A 79-year-old grandmother from suburban Oklahoma City was arrested earlier this month after she tied herself to an earth mover that was working on the pipeline's southern leg in Oklahoma.

After months of quiet, a State Department report has cleared the way for a final decision on the plan by Calgary-based TransCanada to transport oil extracted from Alberta tar sands more than 1,700 miles to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Opponents are now focused on the new secretary of state, John Kerry, who will make a recommendation to President Barack Obama on whether to green-light the project.

Activists said they remain hopeful Obama will reject the pipeline due to environmental concerns ranging from possible spills to the effects of the project on global warming. The pipeline would carry an estimated 800,000 barrels of oil a day.