By ZACH BENOIT Of The Gazette Staff
GLENDIVE — People speaking in support of a 1,700-mile oil pipeline running from Canada to the Gulf Coast far outnumbered its opponents at a U.S. Department of State public hearing, but that didn’t keep either side from giving passionate testimony.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry Canadian crude through a 36-inch underground pipeline from tar sands in Alberta and 284 miles through six Montana counties, then into South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma before ending up at oil refineries in Texas.
Proponents of TransCanada’s pipeline say that it would create up to 20,000 much-needed jobs and give a boost to local economies.
“It’s going to be a good project and bring some good things to the area,” said Richard Dunbar, a Phillips County commissioner and president of the Montana Association of Oil, Gas and Coal Counties.
That jobs number seemed to be an unofficial point of debate during the public hearing, which will be used in the State Department’s analysis and determination of whether or not to approve a presidential permit for the project.
Margie Kidder, of Livingston, said that the pipeline wouldn’t create more than 1,200 jobs and that many of them wouldn’t be local. She said that during the first Keystone pipeline project into the Dakotas, only three of the 398 welders hired were local and cited a State Department study that said the project probably wouldn’t affect long-term unemployment rates.
“The people who want this pipeline built … are lying to us about the jobs they create in our communities,” she said.
Tuesday’s hearing is one of eight being held in six states.
Elected officials, including county commissioners from all over eastern and southern Montana, and business representatives showed strong support for the pipeline’s construction, saying it will provide a boost to area tax bases, which in turn lifts the state.
McCone County Commissioner Janet Wolff, who owns land that the pipeline would run through, said TransCanada representatives have “dealt with us fairly and met any and all demands” from landowners and county officials.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg said he supports it and said he hopes the permit is approved. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wrote a pair of letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to support the permit, saying that it’s “an important part of the infrastructure America needs to secure our energy future and will help stabilize gasoline prices in the long term.”
In his second letter, Tester expressed concern over recent oil spills, including in a pair of TransCanada lines. He said he still supports it but that 57 additional agreements made by TransCanada regarding the line need not be additional requirements but a minimum.
Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy read a letter from Gov. Brian Schweitzer in support of the line. Schweitzer helped negotiate the construction of an oil on-ramp on the pipeline near Baker that would ship 65,000 barrels of oil a day from Montana and North Dakota to the Gulf Coast.
While many government officials and labor groups said the pipeline will boost the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs, environmentalists and some landowners have provided fierce opposition.
About 40 people from the Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group showed up in opposition, putting a focus on the concerns of property owners affected by the pipeline and its construction.
“The pipeline is for the purpose of generating profit for a private company; it’s for a private use,” said Terry Blevins, who owns land near Wolf Point that the pipeline would cross, speaking for the group. “It will generate few, if any, local jobs, and the oil is likely to be destined for export markets. This is not in the national interest.”
On the other hand, more than 100 members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America were on hand, all of them sporting bright orange shirts to support the pipeline, largely due to its potential to create new construction and maintenance jobs.
Several hundred people were lined up outside of the Dawson Community College gym by 4 p.m., waiting to sign up to speak and share their thoughts.
In August, the State Department said in an environmental impact statement that the $7 billion pipeline project would not have a major impact.
Before the meeting began, Consul General for Canada Dale Eisler, based out of Denver, said he trusts those findings.
“The government of Canada totally respects the State Department’s process on this,” he said. “After extensive study for a number of years, that’s the finding of the view and we respect the view of the EIS.”
He went on to say that the pipeline reflects “what is already a deeply integrated energy relationship” between the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s mutually beneficial to both,” Eisler said. “There are strong ties that extend to similar values — freedom, democracy, human rights.”
That mirrored statements by supporters that the pipeline improves the nation’s energy security.
Many at the hearing said that dealing with Canada is preferable to bringing in oil from overseas.
“It will help give us energy and independence so that we’re not giving our money to foreign regimes that are fighting the USA,” said state Sen. John Brenden.
However, critics have said that there’s no guarantee the oil will stay in the U.S. and that the proposal doesn’t adequately address some of the safety and reclamation concerns, as well as its potential impact on wildlife, air quality and wildlife.
“This pipeline is not in the national interest until its risks are much better addressed,” said Julia Page, of Gardiner.
Northern Plains and other opposition members said that TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline has had 14 spills and leaks since it began operations in 2010.
However, Dunbar said the proposed pipeline will run through Phillips County parallel to a large gas line installed decades ago. There have been no problems with that line, he said.
“I think the environmental impact is going to be fairly nil,” he said. “It’ll be next to none.”
Many of the supporters cited the attention to, and modern technology surrounding, the pipeline as a good thing.
“This line from TransCanada will be the safest, most scrutinized pipeline ever constructed in the United States,” said State Sen. Matthew Rosendale.
The hearing is one of the final steps in the State Department’s evaluation of whether the pipeline is “in the national interest” and should get a presidential permit, according to the EIS.
All of the testimony gathered at Tuesday’s hearing, attended by a top State Department official, will be taken into consideration in the decision, which will be made after the public comment period closes on Oct. 9.