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Keystone XL foes look to Nebraska lawsuit, protests, elections in wake of State Dept. report

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LINCOLN, Neb. - With yet another obstacle removed for the Keystone XL pipeline, opponents were pressing forward with a lawsuit to challenge the project, public protests and an effort to inject the issue into the November elections.

Supporters and opponents both were quick to claim victories with the U.S. State Department report released Friday, which raised no major objections to the pipeline. The oil industry, some union groups and congressional Republicans called on the Obama administration to move forward with the project, while a coalition of landowners and environmentalists say there is still cause for denying a federal permit. The project would ship 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.

Meanwhile, farmers and ranchers in Nebraska who oppose the pipeline are planning to run for seats on a state board that regulates power stations that are needed along the project route. And national activists say they have recruited more than 75,000 volunteers willing to participate in civil disobedience, should President Barack Obama approve the Keystone project.

The project now goes to a 30-day comment period and a review by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other agencies. Obama has 90 days to make the decision on the pipeline, but the White House on Friday disputed the notion that the report is headed to a fast approval. Oil began flowing last week through an Oklahoma-to-Texas section already approved by Obama.

"There's no question, if the president approves this permit, that there will be civil disobedience," said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the group Bold Nebraska, which has helped organize opposition in the state. "We've said from the beginning that we will support the landowners and what they want to do and what they think is best for their property. I think you'll see some landowners driving really slow on their county roads to block the (pipeline) trucks."

Project backers said the report — the latest in a five-year review by state and federal agencies — bolsters their case for the pipeline and eliminates the need for further delays.

The Keystone XL is "not about energy versus the environment. It's about where Americans want to get their oil," said Russ Girling, CEO of pipeline developer TransCanada. "Keystone XL will displace heavy oil from such places as the Middle East and Venezuela, and of the top five regions the U.S. imports oil from, only Canada has substantial greenhouse gas regulations in place."

Opponents were planning to host vigils throughout the nation Monday and "pipeline meet-ups" throughout February to encourage people to raise the issue with candidates in the 2014 election. They also were waiting for a Nebraska judge to rule on a lawsuit challenging a state law that allowed the project to proceed. A ruling is expected by late March, and whatever the outcome an appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court is a near certainty.

Kleeb said 115 landowners in Nebraska still refuse to sign agreements with pipeline developer TransCanada and would engage in nonviolent civil disobedience if the company tries to lay pipe through their land. She said her group also plans to run candidates for the Nebraska Public Power District, a state board that approves and regulates power projects.

The district plans to construct a 115,000-volt transmission line to support a pumping station that would be used for the Keystone XL. District officials have said they can't discriminate against customers, but Kleeb said candidates will challenge the pipeline while promoting more alternative energies in Nebraska.

"We will make sure folks know that we have not gone away, that we are still fighting this pipeline," Kleeb said.

Many opponents have turned their hopes to Nebraska, where a group of farmers and ranchers have joined forces with national environmental groups to block the pipeline.

"They have some lawsuits in the works, and they're pretty passionate people," said Paul Seamans, of Draper, S.D., who farms and ranches on land where the pipeline would cross. "I'm putting my hopes in them and the fact that President Obama is environmentally inclined."

Julia Trigg Crawford, the owner of a farm near Paris, Texas, who is in a legal battle with TransCanada over the pipeline, said she was disappointed in the State Department's report but happy to see some acknowledgement that tar sands will do further environmental damage.

"The politicians will throw someone under the bus to get what they want, and last year they threw Oklahoma and Texas under the bus," Crawford said. "I'm hopeful that our neighbours to the north fare better than we did, but ... it's not as encouraging as I hoped it would be."

While polls have shown that a majority of Nebraskans support the project, opponents argue it threatens a region of fragile, sandy soil in the northern part of the state.

Opponents insist that the new pipeline route — redrawn after state officials objected to the first path — still crosses the Nebraska Sandhills, an ecologically fragile expanse of grass-covered sand dunes in the northern part of the state. The pipeline was routed around an area designated as the Sandhills by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, but activists say the map doesn't reflect the true conditions in the area. On Friday, they pointed to a map within the new State Department report that showed the Sandhills still within the pipeline's path.

"We're not going to stand still on this, and we're going to keep hitting home that they've never avoided the Sandhills," said Bruce Boettcher, a Bassett, Neb., rancher who is fighting the project. "They've never avoided any of the porous, permeable soil or the Ogallala Aquifer."

Boettcher said he hasn't yet decided how to proceed if the pipeline wins federal approval and construction begins in Nebraska.

"We're not trying to hold up progress," he said. "We're trying to stand up for what our forefathers fought for. When we've lived here for so many generations, and someone comes in and says we're going to stick this pipeline in whether you like it or not — that's a violation of our rights."

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Associated Press writers Carson Walker in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Maria Sudekum in Kansas City, Mo.; Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston; and Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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