PORT ARTHUR, Texas (AP) — At public meetings in two states on Monday, a proposed pipeline that would bring oil from Canada into the U.S. was criticized as environmentally dangerous by people in Kansas while being praised in Texas as a safe way to create much needed jobs nationwide.
In the Southeast Texas refinery town of Port Arthur, more than 500 people packed a meeting where most spoke in favor of the Keystone XL oil pipeline at a public hearing sponsored by the State Department.
It was the second hearing of the day on the proposed structure. Earlier Monday, 200 people attended a meeting in Topeka, Kan., with many environmentalists speaking against the pipeline, claiming it would move a "dirtier" and environmentally devastating form of energy from Canada through six U.S. states before ending up in Port Arthur, located about 95 miles east of Houston, on the Texas coast.
At the Texas meeting, which lasted about five hours, most supported the pipeline, saying it would create thousands of jobs, increase national security by lessening the country's demand on oil from countries that may not be friendly to the U.S. and would not endanger the environment.
Bobby Petty was like many of those attending who wore T-shirts with slogans in favor of the pipeline, such as "Keystone XL Pipeline Means Jobs" and "Build Keystone XL Now."
Petty, who was with a group called "Veterans For Keystone XL," told State Department officials running the meeting that while he wants clean air and water, he also wants the thousands of jobs the pipeline will create. Many speakers said that with high unemployment besieging the economy, these jobs are desperately needed in Texas and across the country.
"As an American, I'm proud to stand here with my union friends, with my veteran friends, with my Canadian neighbors to please ask the president to approve this pipeline," Petty said.
Supporters of the pipeline, many refinery workers, often cheered after one of them spoke and sometimes booed those who spoke against it.
"We need President Obama to pass this pipeline and pass it right now," said Jaime Alvarado, an owner of a small construction company from Houston. "The No. 1 reason: Jobs and jobs and jobs."
There were about 45 people who spoke against it, including Hilton Kelley, a community activist in Port Arthur, who said he believes the structure would bring more refinery-related health problems to his community.
"We ask that Keystone not come to Port Arthur," he said.
In Topeka, Rabbi Moti Rieber, coordinator of the Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, said he and others in his coalition disagreed with the State Department's report, which said there are unlikely to be any serious environmental problems with the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline.
"An energy policy that moves the nation toward an even dirtier form of oil and involves such devastation of God's creation represents a profound moral failure," he said.
Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said that while he supports exploring alternative energy sources like wind and solar, he also supports building the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline because "for the foreseeable future we're going to need oil."
About 40 protesters organized by the National Wildlife Federation marched outside the hall during a break in the Topeka meeting. They chanted and carried signs saying, "Stop Keystone XL." About a dozen supporters also gathered with signs that read: "We support Keystone XL."
David Barnett, financial secretary for the Pipeliners Union 798, of Tulsa, Okla., said losing the pipeline would cost his members "up in the millions of dollars" in paychecks.
The pipeline would move tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, and hook up to Calgary-based TransCanada's existing pipelines and move oil to Oklahoma and the Gulf of Mexico.
The meetings Monday in Topeka and Port Arthur kick off this week's series of hearings on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Officials from the State Department said they don't plan to answer any questions, reserving most of the time for comments from the public.
Other meetings have been scheduled this week in Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Even in that deeply conservative state there is growing concern about the pipeline's effect on the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast subterranean reservoir that spans a large swath of the Great Plains and provides water to much of Nebraska and seven other states.
The State Department, which has to approve the pipeline because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border, is expected to decide by the end of the year. The sessions are likely to focus on the department's final draft of its environmental impact statement on the pipeline, which found that special conditions put on the pipeline would result in a project with a "degree of safety greater than any typically constructed domestic oil pipeline system under current regulations."
Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, a State Department agency, was in Topeka, where she met with Brownback but did not attend the meetings. She said the State Department would use the input collected during the week to inform the department's decision.
"We have not made our decision," Jones said.
TransCanada and its supporters say the pipeline would mean tens of thousands of U.S. jobs and more energy security for the country.
"If the activists feel that they're facing an uphill battle, it's because the facts don't support their overheated rhetoric," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said earlier. "It has been shown that the outrageous claims these groups have made aren't true."
Associated Press writer Maria Sudekum Fisher reported from Topeka, Kan.