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Rowdy Keystone pipeline hearing pits workers vs greens

Demonstrators carry a replica of a pipeline during a march against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Richar
Demonstrators carry a replica of a pipeline during a march against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Richar

By Katie Schubert

OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - U.S. construction workers, environmentalists and company executives squared off on Thursday at a raucous meeting on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but it was unclear the gathering changed any minds on the controversial project.

U.S. State Department officials hosting the meeting repeatedly called for order at the hearing in Grand Island, Nebraska. It was the first since the department released a 2,000-page report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline in March and more than four years after the project was first floated.

The proposed 830,000 barrel per day pipeline would link Canada's oil sands petroleum fields with U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and also carry domestic oil from Montana and North Dakota through states such as Nebraska.

Dozens of speakers from both sides of the fence took three-minute turns before the microphone at the Heartland Events Center. They often interrupted one another during the eight hours of testimony at a venue more used to hosting monster-truck derbies and antique shows.

Union representatives hailed the project as a safe, state-of-the-art pipeline that will create jobs and bring a source of oil into the United States from a nation that doesn't pose a national security threat.

"This job will be done with union workers and high paying jobs with benefits. If that isn't in the interest of this country, what is?" said Chad Gilbert, a union welder. "My members need these jobs."

Business groups lauded the trickle-down benefits for Nebraska's economy, from increased property tax revenues for local government to higher sales at local gasoline stations.

Opponents of the project from as far away as Arkansas and Texas criticized the findings in the State Department's environmental report and disputed the safety of tar sands oil.

Environmental groups and Native Americans said it would lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, pollute ancestral lands and plough through the habitats of endangered bird species.

A large contingent of opponents wore white baseball-style t-shirts with red sleeves and the words "pipeline fighter" emblazoned on the front.

Jane Kleeb, founder of environmental group Bold Nebraska, called on President Obama to deny the permit. Other opponents decried the project as "global genocide" and threw their support behind development of alternative energy such as ethanol.

Officials from TransCanada Corp, the company that would build and operate the pipeline, held a briefing early on Thursday to discuss safety enhancements and the positive economic impact on local communities.

Keystone was recently thought likely to win approval from the Obama administration after a more than four year fight, and after TransCanada altered the path of the Nebraska leg to avoid sensitive ecological areas.

Nebraska's governor Dave Heinemann has given the project his blessing after being opposed to the initial route across much of western Nebraska's Sandhills region.

Pipeline opponents have gotten a second wind after a pair of spills of Canadian oil in the United States in the past month - from railcars in Minnesota and from an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Arkansas.

The Obama administration is expected to rule on the pipeline later this year after the State Department considers public comments and decides with the help of federal agencies whether the project is in the nation's interest.

During a weekly call with Nebraska media on Thursday, U.S. Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, said she believed enough studies had been done on the Keystone XL project.

"People on all sides would like to see closure on this issue," Fischer said. "I'm hopeful the President is going to take everything under thoughtful consideration and make a decision soon."

(Reporting by Katie Schubert in Nebraska, writing by Ros Krasny; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Andrew Hay)

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