YORK, Nebraska | As union workers extolled the virtues of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline at Wednesday’s hearing before the Nebraska Public Service Commission, Jeanne Crumly grew exasperated.
“I find it really frustrating when, from what we understand, you’re paid to testify, somebody writes your testimony for you, you’re bused in,” said Ms. Crumly, a pipeline opponent who lives in Page, Nebraska.
Then again, some Keystone foes also received an assist. The Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska offered bus rides from Omaha and Atkinson for $10, which included lunch; provided talking points, and passed out anti-KXL T-shirts and stickers.
The result was a battle between labor unions and environmentalists at the public hearing, the first since President Trump granted a permit last month for TransCanada to build the 1,200-mile pipeline carrying tar sands crude through Nebraska from Alberta, Canada.
TransCanada filed in February an application seeking approval in Nebraska, saying that about 90 percent of landowners along the pipeline corridor have signed voluntary easements.
The commission is charged with determining whether the route is in the public interest, not with approving the pipeline.
Given that Nebraska may hold the key to the $8 billion pipeline’s fate, attendance at Wednesday’s all-day hearing was surprisingly thin. The commission only had time to hear 150 speakers at five minutes each, but as of midday three speaking slots were still available.
Judging by the applause, pipeline opponents had the edge. A few dozen people in the cavernous Holthus Convention Center wore red-sleeved shirts provided by the Sierra Club, 350.org and Bold Alliance with the message “Pipeline Fighter.”
Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, which has signed on as an intervener before the commission, said the route would cross tribal historic sites and graves.
“As first Nebraskans, we stand arm in arm with the private landowners that come before you today in opposition to this issue,” Mr. Wright said. “We know what it’s like to have a foreign entity come in and take our land.”
On the other side was Robert Johnston, a fifth-generation Nebraskan whose property lies on the pipeline route, who said that given “Nebraska’s over-reliance on property taxes and huge budget shortfall, I believe it would be out fiscal duty to welcome the added revenue.”
Union members cited the boon to job creation, the economy and the tax base, but landowner Art Tanderup drew cheers by insisting that the state “will be lucky to have one, just one, permanent job if Keystone XL is built.”
“It is not in Nebraska’s public interest to allow a foreign corporation to use eminent domain for their corporate greed,” said Mr. Tandrup, whose property lies in the Nebraska Sandhills.
Most of those against the project were concerned about its impact on the environment, particularly the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which extends across eight states.
“All you need is one spill in the aquifer and you’ve got a mess,” said Lance McClaren of La Vista, adding, “You have the right to reject, approve or modify this route. My personal opinion would be to reroute it at the border and send it right back to Canada.”
Union workers like Kevin Miller of the International Union of Operating Engineers, who lives in neighboring Wyoming, but hunts and fishes in Nebraska, vouched for the project’s safety.
“As an outdoorsman, if I ever thought a project such as the Keystone XL would have a negative impact to things that I hold so dearly in my heart and always have, I would never, ever, ever be in favor of it,” said Mr. Miller. “That is not the case. I feel that TransCanada — they’ve had a lot of years to work on this one to make sure that this job and this specific project is built with the best materials and with the utmost care.”
Bob Schommer of United Piping in Minnesota said that opposing Keystone “is the same as voting to support a less-safe form of transportation,” given that “there’s no debate that pipeline transportation is the safest way to move petroleum-based products.”
“You will be voting to support a higher likelihood of environmental damage by not supporting the pipeline,” Mr. Schommer said.
Brian Jorde, an attorney representing landowners who oppose the pipeline, insisted that “there isn’t one argument thus far of why it would be in the public interest of Nebraska.”
“We’ve got people coming in from out of state to support jobs, and all of us can get behind jobs, but when you weigh that against the risks and the rewards, there’s no reason this pipeline should be built,” Mr. Jorde said.
He also downplayed the conflict between pipeline foes and labor unions.
“The main question is not farmers versus union members. We also support union members and jobs,” Mr. Jorde said. “The threshold question is: Is this project in the public interest of Nebraska? And it’s not.”
The proposed pipeline, which would send 830,000 barrels of crude per day through the 36-inch pipe, was revived by Mr. Trump after being rejected in 2015 by President Obama.