ATKINSON, Neb. -- Bruce Boettcher strolls over a hilltop in desolate Nebraska ranching country, stares down at the tightly packed sand around his boot, clenches his jaw and kicks a fistful into the breeze.
Four generations have worked the land where 55-year-old rancher tends cattle. His rolling, sunburnt 480 acres sit atop the Ogallala aquifer, an underground water supply that has become ground zero in a national fight over the Obama administration's environmental and economic priorities.
The latest showdown unfolded Thursday in a high school gymnasium in the north-central Nebraska town of Atkinson, a farming and ranching community near the Keystone XL pipeline's proposed route. The line operated by Calgary-based TransCanada would carry tar sands oil over the Canadian border and through six states on its way to Texas refineries. U.S. State Department officials are holding hearings this week in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas before they decide whether to grant a federal permit.
Boettcher said he is angry that TransCanada, in his view, has pitted neighbors against one another and tried to quietly rush the project toward approval. A U.S. State Department environmental report has found no major concerns with the project, but opponents question its objectivity.
"They have scientists, they have geologists, they have the EPA, and they find nothing wrong here," Boettcher said. "But the people who live here know more. It's not because we have some title and a name tag. We work with this land. We know what you can do and what you can't do. And this is not one of the things you should not be doing."
Pipeline supporters point to U.S. State Department studies and other water experts who insist the project is safe. Business groups and unions have welcomed the project as a major job-creator that will reduce the nation's dependence on Middle East oil. But the pipeline has drawn fierce opposition from an unlikely coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmental groups who fear it will leak and contaminate the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking and irrigation water to eight states.
Supporters and top TransCanada executives have said the criticism is baseless, and an attempt to stir fears for political gain.
About 300 spectators filled the West Holt High School gymnasium on Thursday, hoping to sway State Department officials before they decide whether to allow the $7 billion project to proceed.
Ron Kaminski, business manager for the Omaha-based Laborers' Local 1140, said calls to reroute the line were a stall tactic. Union supporters arrived in busloads from Nebraska and other states. Pipeline critics have said TransCanada paid the union members to attend, an allegation several members declined to confirm.
"We believe deeply in the jobs this will create," Kaminski said. "We believe deeply in the relationship we have had with TransCanada for years. Unfortunately, not everyone in this room has had the opportunity to work with TransCanada."
On Thursday, as both sides held back-to-back press conferences, Terry Frisch rumbled through the Sandhills in a red, dust-caked Chevy pick-up. The 64-year-old Republican and part-time rancher said he seldom agrees with environmentalists, and has never participated in such a large political fight.
But Frisch said he joined the opposition because parts of his land sit within inches of the top of the underground water table. In the summer, he said, his property often floods.
"It isn't going to affect us near as it's going to affect our kids and their kids," he said. "It's going to be a long-term effect."
Frisch pulled into a pasture with a fellow rancher, Todd Cone, to show how close the water sits to the surface. Cone jammed a post-hole digger into the sandy soil, tossed several loads aside and pointed to the water 18 inches below.
University of Nebraska scientists have differed on whether the pipeline poses a risk. John Stansbury, a water resources engineer, has urged the State Department to deny the permit because of environmental concerns. But emeritus professor Jim Goeke, a hydrogeologist, has said critic claims are false and the pipeline is safe.
The Atkinson hearing, the second and final one in Nebraska this week, showed a divide far larger than other states where the pipeline would run.
Supporters in South Dakota far outnumbered opponents among the crowd of about 250 in Pierre, partly because of Minnesota-based unions that bused in members to testify in support of the project.
Jim Doolittle, a rancher in northwest South Dakota, said he supports the project even though it would cross four miles of his land.
"It's going to be really a boost for the local economy. It's going to be good for the U.S. getting oil from a friendly North American neighbor," said Doolittle, former director of the Black Hills Community Economic Development organization, a member of a business coalition that supports the project.
He added: "I guess we wouldn't support it if we didn't think it was a safe way to transport oil."
___Associated Press reporter Chet Brokaw contributed from Pierre, S.D.