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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Thousands of demonstrators circled the White House yesterday afternoon, demanding that President Barack Obama deny permission for a proposed pipeline to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Hey, Obama, we don't want no climate drama. Hey, Obama, we don't...

MONTAGNE: Many environmentalists oppose the Keystone XL project. Business and labor leaders mostly support it. And now what lawmakers decide in one state, Nebraska, may play a decisive role. Fred Knapp of NET News in Nebraska has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

FRED KNAPP, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, a small crowd gathered in the vaulting rotunda of Nebraska's towering state Capitol. Light streamed into the space from arched windows high above, bouncing off the floor where a marble mosaic depicts Mother Earth yielding gifts of food and water. Nebraska author Mary Pipher talked about her state.

MARY PIPHER: Nebraskans live here because we choose to be here. Our state is not glamorous, exciting, or an easy place to make a living. What we have in our state is our history, our relationships, our land and our water.

KNAPP: This wasn't an abstract celebration of civic pride. It was press conference preceding a special session of the Legislature - meeting a few steps away - to discuss the pipeline. Governor Dave Heineman recently reversed himself and called the Legislature into special session to deal with this issue.

GOVERNOR DAVE HEINEMAN: Many Nebraskans, including myself, support the pipeline, but we are opposed to the route that goes through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer. We ask: Why would you risk an oil spill or leak over the aquifer when TransCanada already has a pipeline route on the eastern side of Nebraska?

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: The vast Sandhills are home to more cattle than people. Beneath the grass-covered dunes is the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies about 80 percent of Nebraska's water for drinking and irrigation. Concerns about a pipeline carrying 700,000 barrels of oil a day through there has produced an unlikely coalition against it. Jane Kleeb helps coordinate the opposition.

JANE KLEEB: You have conservative farmers and ranchers. You have progressive environmentalists. You have, you know, independents who care about eminent domain and private, individual property rights. And so I think that's really why you see a lot of this.

KNAPP: The pipeline company TransCanada promises state-of-the-art safety systems. It complains that nearly three years into the federal approval process, it would now be impossible to change the pipeline's route. Spokesman Shawn Howard says opponents are just being unrealistic.

SHAWN HOWARD: Anybody who looks at this objectively knows that we're decades away from being able to turn off a fossil fuel switch and flip on an alternative energy switch without affecting our quality of life.

KNAPP: TransCanada encountered almost no opposition when it built a similar pipeline across eastern Nebraska two years ago. That one skirted the Sandhills, though it crosses a small portion of the aquifer. But legislative Speaker Mike Flood, who opposed this special session, says the earlier pipeline was built was before BP's Gulf oil spill.

SENATOR MIKE FLOOD: It's a different environment than it was even just a couple of years ago.

KNAPP: But is it different enough to persuade the usually pro-business Legislature to pass a bill aimed at changing the route? And if the Legislature does act, the almost-certain legal challenges could provide their own detour in getting Canadian oil to Texas. For NPR News, I'm Fred Knapp in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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