Long before the Occupy movement swept the country—over two years ago—a political revolt began in one of the reddest states in America. Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska, many of whom are long-time conservatives, got angry about the amount of corporate influence in a single political issue that has since captivated the entire state and upset federal politics: the Keystone XL pipeline.
Today, the Obama administration announced that it is rejecting the project—which would have carried tar-sands petroleum from Alberta across Nebraska and five other states to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would have been refined and likely shipped overseas. The rejection is a major victory for the environmental movement, which staged a series of protests against the pipeline last fall. The decision comes after months of political ping-pong. The State Department announced this past November that the administration would delay the decision until after the 2012 election. Then in December, Congressional Republicans attached a mandate to the payroll tax cut extension that forced Obama to make his decision about the pipeline by February of this year. Currently, some members of Congress are crafting legislation that would override Obama’s ruling on Keystone XL, though no bill has yet been introduced. But within Nebraska, the pipeline has been about more than partisan squabbling: public sentiment stirred by the pipeline has the potential to remake state politics.
Like the Occupy movement, Nebraska’s pipeline revolt has raised the level of conversation about clean government and the role of corporate money—almost to a fever pitch. For the last several months, the pipeline has transcended the culture war and become an issue big enough to motivate Republicans at the grassroots to make friends with liberals and “treehuggers.” In Nebraska, the Keystone XL fight has opened a new sense of possibility that a few citizens with little money could wield collective political influence.
It takes a lot to shake polite Midwesterners out of politics as usual. Many citizens of rural Nebraska are birthright Republicans—reticent people whose conservatism is often a lifelong component of their identity. Some feel their concerns are left out of national politics and the media. (When Obama spoke of Nebraska early last month in a statement on Keystone XL, one rancher, Susan Luebbe, said she was “was pretty surprised that he actually knows we have a state out here.”) The pipeline didn’t make regular news headlines in Nebraska until 2010. In 2008 and 2009, the story that Canadian pipeline developer TransCanada was sniffing around Nebraska ranches and farms—pressuring people to sign easements to run the pipeline through their pastures and cropland—spread in large part by word of mouth.
It wasn’t until May 2010, when the State Department held public hearings in Atkinson and York, Nebraska, that the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline found its voice. Ben Gotschall, a fourth-generation rancher, then in his late 20s, attended the York hearing and grew concerned when he heard that Keystone XL would cross the Sandhills—a 12 million–acre landscape of fragile, erodible soil and rolling sand dunes. A patch of trampled grass there can weather into a dune blowout and destroy a hay meadow. The water table is shallow—in some places, you can strike groundwater by digging elbow-deep into the soil. And it’s not just any groundwater but the massive Ogallala Aquifer, a drinking-water and irrigation source in eight states. To Gotschall and many other ranchers, it didn’t make sense to dig up miles of the Sandhills and send a pipe of high-pressure tar-sands bitumen—full of benzene, arsenic and other toxins—through the source of the region’s irrigation and drinking wells, many of which are untreated. He feared an oil spill could ruin generations-old ranching communities. After posting furiously about the issue on Facebook, Gotschall decided to bring the pipeline to the attention of Bold Nebraska, a progressive organization founded by Jane Kleeb, wife of a former Democratic candidate for US Senate. Together, they posted an ad that pictured Gotschall and described the potential risks of Keystone XL.