Oil and Water: Nebraska’s Toxic Debate

This is a story about land. From verdant Canadian forests to gilded Nebraska prairie. A story about oil and water, strip-mined sites and family farms, dying communities and dollar signs. It’s a story about the potential collision between one of the largest oil reserves on the planet and the largest supply of groundwater in North America.

It’s also a story about the people whose lives are written into the soil. The ones haunted by “what-ifs” of polluted air, contaminated water, dead livestock, dead people. The ones excited by the prospect of more tax revenue, jobs, energy independence.

A story about a 36-inch diameter, 1,179-mile pipeline that would pump 830,000 gallons of oil across Nebraska every day — enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools every hour — that’s spurred debate and passed under the pen of two presidents with vastly different views.

For months now, the last say was left to the five-person Nebraska Public Service Commission. The group listened to testimony and collected 20,000 pages of documents with comments from half a million people, all to render judgment on a single question:

Is this pipeline in Nebraska’s public interest?

And on the morning of Nov. 20, the commissioners offered their solution: TransCanada could build their pipeline, they said, but it would have to follow a different route, one offering more protection for Nebraska’s water and wildlife. The muddled decision offered both sides victory and defeat, matching the tone of the issue thus far: complicated.

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