On the Plains, a Rare Chance at Trans-Partisan Politics

On the Plains, a Rare Chance at Trans-Partisan Politics

On the Plains, a Rare Chance at Trans-Partisan Politics

In Nebraska, the Keystone XL fight opened up the sense that ordinary citizens with little money could wield political influence. Can the improbable alliance stick together?


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.

At the time, Gotschall was a part-time poetry and literature professor in Lincoln and a cattle-breeder at his family’s ranch in Holt County. About eight months ago, Bold Nebraska hired Gotschall to work as a campaigner against the pipeline and continue building a network of opponents, including other ranchers. Meanwhile, Bold formed a coalition that grew to include groups like the Sierra Club Nebraska Chapter, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, the League of Women Voters and the Nebraska Farmers Union, an organization that has long served as a bridge between the farmers and ranchers it represents and conservation groups.

Despite its leftist roots, this coalition provided the primary platform for anyone opposed to Keystone XL, from any political background. When Cindy Myers, a registered Republican and a nurse from Holt County in the Nebraska Sandhills, first heard about Keystone XL, she was incredulous. “I thought, ‘This just can’t be, and people don’t understand our groundwater here,’” she says. Myers speaks haltingly and is, by her own admission, a quiet person who never got involved in political activism until Keystone XL. In 2009, she began writing letters to government agencies and her political representatives. In May 2010, she attended a State Department public hearing in Atkinson. “I had no clue what a hearing was and that you give testimony,” she says. The common sentiment at the meeting was that the pipeline was a “done deal,” and there was little input locals could have. “And I kept sitting there fuming, thinking, Well, what about our water? I didn’t hear anybody concerned about water.” Myers stifles a laugh when she explains that, soon after the hearing, she went to a pipeline protest led by Bold Nebraska. Last spring, she traveled to Washington, DC, with a coalition from Bold to meet with members of Congress and State Department officials. In the fall, on her own initiative she organized two jam-packed public meetings on the pipeline in the 600-person town of Stuart. Myers heard resistance from some locals when she brought information from Bold Nebraska to the meetings. But she staunchly defended the group and won over some of her conservative neighbors.

Myers is one of many citizens in Nebraska who were swept into the political fray by Keystone XL. A potent combination of issues made it easier for pipeline opponents to find political unity. First, the pipeline felt like a clear threat to Nebraskan livelihoods: Irrigation is the life-support system of the state’s agriculture. Second, Nebraskans found a common enemy in a Canadian oil company whose tactics have ranged from hostile (intimidating landowners with threats of eminent domain even though it lacked authority to enforce them) to bizarre (airing pro-pipeline ads at Husker football games, which were booed by thousands of fans until the university canceled the company’s ad contract). Randy Thompson, a rancher who has refused to give TransCanada access to his land, bristled when a company representative called him on the day of his mother’s funeral, then sent flowers to the memorial service. “These people [with TransCanada] are something else,” he says. “I went through the roof.”

Thompson, also a first-time political activist, became one of the most respected and visible opponents of Keystone XL. His face appeared on anti-pipeline posters with the phrase, “I stand with Randy,” and the New York Times called him a Nebraskan “folk hero.” His activism brought his own political views into question. He admits he thought climate change was “a bunch of BS” until Keystone XL turned him into a voracious scholar of all things related to pipelines, oil and tar sands and changed his mind. Now he says he probably “won’t be a Republican much longer.”

The issue has continued to blur conventional political lines. Several unions were in favor of the pipeline, citing the job opportunities they hoped it would bring to the region, and both labor unions and the conservative Americans for Prosperity bused Keystone XL supporters to testify at State Department hearings in Nebraska in September. But TransCanada’s heavy-handed lobbying strategies also bolstered statewide opposition. TransCanada made plain for Nebraskans just how far-reaching corporate influence can be. Bold Nebraska publicized evidence that the State Department was relying on a project management consultant, Cardno Entrix, that was also a client of TransCanada, before the story made major national headlines, and many pipeline opponents have been outraged to hear that thousands of public comments were ignored and mishandled by the State Department. TransCanada flooded the local radio and television stations with pro-pipeline ads and used both threats and pleas to win political support. Nebraskans watched their state politicians take closed-door meetings with TransCanada officials and Canadian policymakers, but sometimes exclude citizen groups from key discussions. Nebraska’s governor and attorney general both accepted campaign contributions from TransCanada, then returned them, fearing legal consequences. In December 2010, a TransCanada spokesperson told a Nebraska Farmers Union gathering that the company would follow any regulations the state passed. But in late October 2011, TransCanada issued a nineteen-page legal statement threatening to sue Nebraska for billions of dollars in damages under the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, should the state pass laws that interfere with Keystone XL.

Citizens responded by flooding the newspapers with letters to the editor, and opponents took an almost journalistic role as watchdogs over TransCanada, publicizing company memos and documents that suggest political misdeals and doublespeak. The issue stirred strong public opinion: in a September poll, 64 percent of Nebraska voters supported more state regulations for pipelines; 47 percent opposed Keystone XL altogether (compared to 33 percent who support it). And nearly three-fourths of Nebraskans would like to prohibit foreign companies, like TransCanada, from taking property by eminent domain.

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.

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