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Keystone XL in the Heartland: Eco-Politics Back on the Ranch

In Nebraska, the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline is no longer about left versus right.

It’s been a surprise story for the national media. During hearings held by the State Department this week, some of the loudest opposition to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which will move tar-sands oil from Alberta to Texas refineries, is coming from Nebraska, a deep-red state whose citizens are often isolated from and a bit suspicious of federal politics. Nebraska landowner Tom Genung got arrested while demonstrating against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Milan Ilnyckyj)

We’ve become used to a political narrative that says conservatives aren’t interested in environmental issues—and certainly aren’t likely to join hands with greenies or raise Cain to fight the oil industry. But sometimes there’s a realpolitik in Nebraska that transcends conventional political ideologies—it’s about land and the practicalities of living on it.

Like most of the Plains, Nebraska has a lot of farmland and pasture—more than 90 percent of its land base is agricultural. State law banned corporations from owning farms from 1982 to 2006, when a federal court struck down the ban. But the vast majority of Nebraska’s farmland is still family-owned, and the pipeline crosses land that has belonged to some ranch families for several generations. The planned pipeline route also transects the Sandhills, an iconic 12-million-acre landscape of fragile sandy soil, rolling dunes, prairie grasses, yucca, and migrating waterbirds. “The Sandhills are Nebraska’s wild land. It’s this place where we still have our cattle ranching traditions. It's still a lot like it was 100 years ago,” says Ben Gotschall, a fourth-generation Nebraska rancher and one of lead campaigners against the Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline fight has been eye-opening. It’s made political opponents into allies, uniting progressives concerned about climate change with conservative ranchers wanting to protect the integrity of their farmland and their water supplies.

The aquifer that runs through the Sandhills is so shallow that in some places locals say you can touch water just by digging your arm elbow-deep into the dirt. And it’s not just any groundwater, but the giant Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies eight states and supplies 65 percent of the nation’s irrigation water. After this summer’s highly publicized spill in Yellowstone River and several spills along TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline, which runs from Canada to Illinois, locals are deeply concerned about what could happen to ranching communities when an oil leak hits the Sandhills’ shallow water table.

For many, the TransCanada route through the Sandhills feels like both an assault on the agricultural economy and on Nebraska’s very identity. “Our family has been in this ranching business and on this ranch for over a hundred years … and we were not going to stand by and in one fell swoop let TransCanada destroy it,” says Teri Taylor, one of many Nebraska landowners who testified this week against the pipeline at State Department hearings.

In total, more than 2,000 people turned out for the two Nebraska hearings. Roughly as many people showed up in the rural town of Atkinson, population 1,200, as in Lincoln, the capital city. At both hearings there was a crowd of pipeline supporters—many of whom were union workers hoping that TransCanada would offer construction jobs. According to InsideClimate News, the American Petroleum Institute offered many pipeline supporters bus transportation to the hearings. Union representatives also traveled to the hearings from out of state.

The hearings, though generally civil, sometimes had the feel of a football game. Pipeline opponents cheered enthusiastically for anti-Keystone testimony. Some claims about the pipeline’s safety standards got snickers. A union worker from Oklahoma won applause for an appeal about jobs that seemed to strike a chord. A soft-spoken rancher received a roar of approval from the crowd as he haltingly read testimony about his fears for the water supply. Multiple speakers voiced their anger over corporate influence in state and federal politics. “Why should we in Nebraska take all the risk for none of the benefits while a powerful corporation makes even more obscene profits?” said Jean Lewis, a Nebraska photographer. 

It’s not a partisan issue to protect drinking water. It’s common sense to find alternatives to importing expensive oil from Canada. And if farmers in the country’s breadbasket want to survive the decades to come, it will be necessary to stop climate change.

Locals say it’s unusual for Nebraskans to react this strongly to anything—they say people here tend to be diffident, private, and uncomfortable when others meddle in their business. That may be one reason the project has roused such heated controversy. TransCanada’s public relations strategies have generally failed to comprehend Nebraskan sensibilities. The company stirred outrage when it sent threats of eminent domain to landowners along the pipeline. It aired ads about the pipeline on video screens earlier this month at Husker football games, a mainstay of Nebraska cultural life: Inside the 85,000-person stadium, the crowd booed when the ad appeared. Days after the second round of ads aired, the university canceled its contract with TransCanada because of fierce opposition from football fans.

Randy Thompson, who has fought to deny TransCanada rights to build the pipeline through his farm, was appalled when company representatives recently sent flowers to his mother’s funeral: “I said, ‘I want these in the dumpster right now.’ … That's the last thing I wanted to see at that time.”

For ranchers like Thompson, the pipeline fight has been eye-opening. It’s made political opponents into allies, uniting progressives concerned about climate change with conservative ranchers wanting to protect the integrity of their farmland and their water supplies.

The opposition has succeeded in getting the public’s attention in Nebraska. Three years ago, ranchers and environmentalists working against the pipeline believed it was a “done deal.” Now 64 percent of Nebraska voters support a regulatory proposal that could shift the pipeline route, and 47 percent oppose Keystone XL outright, according to a poll commissioned by Bold Nebraska. Public outcry has moved Governor Dave Heinemann, who was previously tepid on the subject, to ask Obama to deny approval to Keystone XL.

But what’s happening in Nebraska suggests something larger—that it could be possible to have environmental politics driven by common values rather than hot-button issues and divisive ideology. It’s not a partisan issue to protect drinking water. It’s common sense to find alternatives to importing expensive oil from Canada. And if farmers in the country’s breadbasket want to survive the decades to come, it will be necessary to stop climate change.

Politics in Nebraska will never look like California, but the pipeline has opened a back-to-basics dialogue in the center of the country about what people value and what they want for their children—such as a decent, unpolluted, stable place to live in.

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