On the Plains, a Rare Chance at Trans-Partisan Politics
The announcement of the federal delay in November was a relief to many Nebraskans concerned about the pipeline, and boosted Obama’s esteem among even some conservatives in the state. TransCanada quickly followed with a promise to the Nebraska state legislature to reroute the pipeline to avoid the Sandhills—though the company has disclosed little information about what the new route would look like. The delay also bought the state time to institute its own regulations and oversight of pipelines. In November, public outcry finally persuaded the governor to hold a special legislative session, in large part to consider bills guiding pipeline siting, although fears of lawsuits led policymakers to dilute the regulations under consideration. Just before Thanksgiving, the legislature passed two pipeline bills. One designated a state agency to oversee the permitting and siting of pipelines, though it exempted Keystone XL and applied only to future pipeline proposals. The second authorized Nebraska to do its own environmental impact assessment of Keystone, supplemental to the federal environmental assessment—but with the state’s own money (an estimated $2 million) rather than funding from TransCanada.
Many citizens watched the legislative session closely to see whether state officials were defending their interests. At televised hearings, members of the state natural resources committee sometimes appeared to give biased treatment to pipeline opponents. When Cindy Myers testified, senators grilled her harshly on her credentials and background. “I’m just wondering why average citizens would have anything to say about this,” said one senator. After the hearing, Myers sat in her car and sobbed. That evening, her e-mail inbox, Facebook page and voicemail were full of sympathetic messages from people who had watched the hearings—including Republican friends from Holt County and a chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
“This issue is now not just an environmental issue or a landowner or a natural resource issue,” says John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “It is now a clean government issue.… Now [Keystone XL] gets to be the basis for making an important decision about whether or not the person that you elected and sent down to Lincoln…is in fact representing your interests.” Hansen and many others say they can’t remember another political issue that aroused such deep scrutiny or strong feelings from the Nebraska public.
It’s early to make predictions about how the aftertaste of the pipeline debate—or Obama's final announcement on Keystone XL, which mentioned opposition in Nebraska as a key motivation for rejecting the project—will shape Nebraska’s political map. But the issue has established an ad hoc, statewide network of environmentalists, liberals, conservatives, urbanites and country folks. Leaders emerged from the grassroots and discovered surprising common ground with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum. The issue has pushed some of the the pipeline’s most vocal opponents beyond not-in-my-backyard indignation to a broader view of the political system. Myers’s viewpoints had already begun to shift during the 2008 presidential election: She cast her ballot for Obama. But the pipeline has nudged her political views much further. “When I started speaking out, I was only thinking about Holt County,” says Myers. “But the more I researched and read and learned.… I’m also concerned internationally and even globally with our climate and the effects on people in Michigan with the Kalamazoo River [spill]…plus the people living in the tar sands up in Canada.”
Ken Winston, lobbyist for the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club, believes that Keystone XL has stirred up a significant number of Nebraska citizens and opened the door to discussing environmental issues more earnestly across the state. “One of the things that concerned the corporate interests is that there are people who suddenly realized that they have the ability to impact the political process,” he says.
Susan Luebbe takes a dim view of politicians and has found her activism on the pipeline to be exhausting. But she’s made far more friends than she ever expected and gotten calls of support from out of state. In October, she traveled to Washington, DC, with Bold Nebraska for a demonstration. She was surprised to find herself standing beside protesters from Occupy DC. “The stories [of the Occupy movement] make a whole lot of sense about how the corporate world has taken over, and the little people don’t matter any more,” she says. “And somewhere it’s got to even out, so that all citizens get an equal chance of what the United States can offer.”
And Keystone XL may influence Nebraska politics for months or even years. Some pipeline opponents were deeply dissatisfied with the outcome of the special legislative session and unhappy with their state politicians. Thompson expressed disgust. “They exempted TransCanada from a lot of the regulations, and I just don’t feel like they should have,” he says. “I think the only thing left for our legislature to do is to hold a dance with TransCanada—that way they could really snuggle up to each other.”
Myers was also disappointed. She felt the regulations passed by the state accomplished little except to defuse and muddle public opinion. “I think TransCanada came out ahead in the whole special session. It makes it more difficult to fight against the pipeline,” she said. She also worried that Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club accepted too much compromise during the legislative process and should have take a harder line against the pipeline and the reroute, particularly when the details of TransCanada’s new proposal hadn't been revealed. She wonders if she can still support these groups and says she’s “wiped out.” But she continued to write letters to the State Department about the pipeline and to speak on the phone with citizen groups and with a candidate for state senate. “I would stand up against anything that I think would be harmful for people,” she says.
Whether the improbable anti-pipeline alliance forged over the last year can build political momentum on other issues will depend on its ability to maintain relevance to people like Myers—who still feel their communities are isolated from and overlooked by the political process. Jane Kleeb says her group plans to campaign in next election against legislators who ignored citizen opinion during the Keystone process: “People who sided with TransCanada and not Nebraskans—we’re going to make sure that they’re held accountable in 2012.” Their challenge will be to continue to speak to both left and right with a kind of populist integrity, and to avoid compromises that make it look like progressives are placing a political agenda ahead of the core principle that brought the alliance together—defending Nebraskan communities against the oversized influence of the fossil-fuel industry.
It’s a struggle that may play out elsewhere in the country—as Occupy continues to draw attention to money’s influence in politics. Concern over corporate influence is no longer only the left’s issue. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they want less corporate involvement in government. In the next year or so, Nebraska may be an interesting test case to see whether post-partisan politics—united by opposition to corporate power—can survive.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the announcement today that Obama administration will reject the Keystone pipeline.