Transpartisan Politics on the Plains

Transpartisan Politics on the Plains

The Keystone fight showed ordinary Nebraskans their power. Will their unlikely alliance stick?


The sandhills near Mills in north central Nebraska, through which the Keystone XL pipeline was planned to be built. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Lincoln, Nebraska

Long before the Occupy movement swept the country—more than two years ago—a revolt began in one of the reddest states in America. Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska, many of them longtime conservatives, got angry about corporate influence on a single issue that has since captivated the entire state and upset national politics: the Keystone XL pipeline.

On January 18 the Obama administration announced it will reject 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 decision came after months of political ping-pong. In November the State Department announced that the administration would delay the decision until after the 2012 election; in December Congressional Republicans attached a mandate to the payroll tax-cut extension that forced Obama to make his pipeline decision by February. Now Republicans will likely push legislation written by Nebraska Representative Lee Terry that would strip Obama’s authority on Keystone XL and place the pipeline under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Still, the president’s rejection is a major victory for the environmental movement, which staged a series of protests against the pipeline in the fall. And in Nebraska, public sentiment stirred by the pipeline has the potential to remake state politics.

Nebraska’s pipeline uprising has heightened the level of conversation about clean government and the role of corporate money to a near fever pitch, becoming an issue large enough to motivate Republicans at the grassroots to make friends with liberals and “tree huggers.” Here in Nebraska, the Keystone XL pipeline fight has opened a new sense of possibility: that a few citizens with little money or experience in activism 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 a component of their identity. Many feel their concerns are left out of national politics and media. (When Obama mentioned Nebraska in a statement on Keystone XL, rancher Susan Luebbe said she was “pretty surprised that he actually knows we have a state out here.”)

The pipeline didn’t make regular 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 largely by word of mouth.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2010, when the State Department held public hearings in the towns of Atkinson and York, that the opposition to the pipeline found its voice. Ben Gotschall, a fourth-generation rancher then in his late 20s, attended the York hearing, where he met Jane Kleeb, wife of a former Democratic candidate for the US Senate and founder of the progressive advocacy group Bold Nebraska. Gotschall and Kleeb were concerned 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; it’s the massive Ogallala aquifer, a drinking water and irrigation source for eight states. To Gotschall, Kleeb and many other Nebraskans, 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. They feared that an oil spill would ruin generations-old ranching communities. Together, Gotschall and Kleeb posted an ad in Prairie Fire, a regional monthly newspaper, in which Gotschall described the risks of the pipeline.

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 him to work as a campaigner against the pipeline and continue building a network of opponents, including other ranchers. Meanwhile, Bold Nebraska formed a coalition that grew to include groups like the Sierra Club’s 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 conservation groups and the farmers and ranchers it represents.

Despite its progressive roots, this coalition became the primary platform for anyone from any political background opposed to Keystone XL, including Cindy Myers, a nurse from Holt County in the Nebraska Sandhills. When Myers, then a registered Republican, 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 was not involved in activism until Keystone XL. In 2009 she began writing letters to government agencies and her 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 I kept sitting there fuming, thinking, Well, what about our water? I didn’t hear anybody concerned about water,” says Myers. She 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 Nebraska to meet with members of Congress and State Department officials. In the fall, 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 Nebraskans swept into the political fray by Keystone XL. A potent combination of issues made it easier for pipeline opponents to find unity. First, the pipeline represented 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, causing the university to cancel 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 [TransCanada] people are something else,” he says. “I went through the roof.”

Thompson, another first-time 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”; the New York Times called him a Nebraska “folk hero.” His activism caused him to question his views. He admits that 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 labor unions supported the pipeline, citing the jobs they hoped it would bring to the region. Unions and the conservative Americans for Prosperity bused in Keystone XL supporters to testify at State Department hearings in Atkinson in September. But TransCanada’s heavy-handed lobbying strategies bolstered opposition across the political spectrum. TransCanada made plain to 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, of which TransCanada was also a client before the story made national headlines. TransCanada flooded the local radio and television stations with pro-pipeline ads and used threats as well as pleas to win support. Nebraskans watched as their state representatives took closed-door meetings with TransCanada officials and Canadian policy-makers while at times excluding citizen groups from key discussions. Nebraska’s governor and attorney general 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 newspapers with letters to the editor, and opponents took on a watchdog role, publicizing company memos and documents that suggested political deals and doublespeak. The issue stirred strong public opinion: in a September poll, 64 percent of Nebraska voters supported more state regulations for pipelines, and 47 percent opposed Keystone XL altogether. Nearly three-quarters of Nebraskans would like to prohibit any foreign company, TransCanada being just one of them, from taking property by eminent domain.

Obama’s announcement of the pipeline delay in November was a relief to many Nebraskans and boosted their esteem for the president, even among conservatives. The delay bought the state time to institute its own regulations and oversight of pipelines; public outcry had persuaded the governor to hold a special legislative session to consider bills guiding pipeline siting. Just before Thanksgiving, the legislature passed two pipeline bills. One designated a state agency to oversee the permitting and siting of pipelines, though it applied only to future pipeline proposals, not to Keystone XL. The second authorized Nebraska to do its own environmental impact assessment of Keystone, with the state’s 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. When Cindy Myers testified before the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, senators grilled her and other citizens who testified on their credentials and backgrounds. 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. Bold Nebraska launched an online campaign asking lawmakers on the Natural Resources Committee to apologize to Myers and other citizens who gave testimony.

After the session adjourned, the group celebrated the bills that passed as a win against Big Oil, though they acknowledged that the regulations could have been stronger and that TransCanada wielded too much influence during the process. “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.” Hansen and many others say they can’t remember another issue that aroused such strong feelings, and such deep scrutiny, from Nebraskans.

* * *

It’s too early to predict how the aftermath 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 reshape 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 with profoundly different politics. The issue has pushed some of the pipeline’s most vocal opponents beyond not-in-my-backyard indignation to a broader view of the system. Myers’s views had begun to shift during the 2008 presidential campaign: she cast her ballot for Obama. The pipeline has nudged her much further. “When I started speaking out, I was only thinking about Holt County,” she says. “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 Nebraskans 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.

Rancher Susan Luebbe takes a dim view of politicians and has found her pipeline activism to be exhausting. But she’s made many new friends and gotten calls of support from out of state. In October she traveled to Washington 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 anymore,” 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.”

Keystone XL may influence Nebraska politics for months or even years. Some pipeline opponents are deeply dissatisfied with the outcome of the special legislative session. Thompson is disgusted. “They exempted TransCanada from a lot of the regulations, and I just don’t feel like they should have,” he says.

Myers is also disappointed. She feels that the regulations passed by the state accomplished little except to defuse public criticism. “TransCanada came out ahead in the whole special session,” she says. “It makes it more difficult to fight against the pipeline.” She also thinks that Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club should have taken a harder line against the amendments that exempted Keystone XL. 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. Myers recently registered as a Democrat.

Whether the improbable anti-pipeline alliance forged over the past year can build momentum on other issues will depend on its ability to remain relevant to people like Myers, who still feel their communities are isolated from and overlooked by the political process. Bold Nebraska continues to fight for bills that would restrict the influence of corporate lobbyists and stays active in pipeline politics. Jane Kleeb says the group plans to campaign in the next election against legislators who ignored citizen opinion during the Keystone process. Their challenge will be to continue to speak to both left and right with populist integrity and to focus on the core principle that brought the alliance together—defending Nebraska’s 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 the role of money in politics. Concern about 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 transpartisan politics—united by opposition to corporate power—can survive.

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