Since 2010, Jane Kleeb, a gutsy, high-energy activist living in the rural college town of Hastings, Nebraska, has helped Nebraska landowners channel their fury against the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Canadian company TransCanada, which planned to route the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline from Canada’s tar sands through the fragile Nebraska Sandhills. What began as a small political fight on the prairie grew into an environmental rallying cry uniting unlikely allies across the country, including a coalition of tribes, ranchers, and farmers calling themselves the “Cowboy Indian Alliance,” seasoned environmentalists and neophyte activists, major progressive organizations, Hollywood celebrities, and, ultimately, influential Democratic Party donors.
Since President Obama announced that his administration had officially nixed the Keystone XL project last fall, Kleeb decided she wanted to bring the lessons learned from pipeline fighting into electoral politics. Less than two weeks ago, she was elected chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party in what the Lincoln Journal-Star called a “tumultuous state Democratic convention.” Her ascendancy in the party is one indication that the fight over Keystone created more than a single-issue victory—it spurred the development of a political movement that has momentum beyond the pipeline. “We joke that the cowboy-and-indian Alliance that beat KXL is now leading the [Democratic] party on a very different path,” Kleeb says. But that movement doesn’t conform easily to traditional party politics, and it’s not yet clear how these activists might influence outcomes this election season.
For years, the economic and political might of coal, oil, and gas seemed like an intractable force. The industry has fought hard against many environmental regulations, especially restrictions on carbon emissions, stymied incentives to promote renewable energy, and given generously to the campaigns of elected officials. And at first, the Keystone campaign seemed futile—in winter 2011, most “energy and environment insiders” polled by National Journal insisted the project would move forward, even though the president had delayed its approval process.
Bold Nebraska, the progressive political organization Kleeb founded, stoked the rural Keystone XL fight, which was focused on concerns about water contamination and TransCanada’s property-rights violations, into a statewide battle. Bold also joined with 350.org, the international organization co-founded by author Bill McKibben to fight global warming, and an alliance of other major environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, student activists, faith leaders, indigenous groups, and other progressive organizations such as the NAACP. Together, they brought national attention to the Keystone fight and organized more than 750 protests all over the country, including demonstrations around the White House that resulted in hundreds of arrests. As the campaign drew supporters and built its muscles, it helped awaken and invigorate people all over the country who felt squeamish about the impacts of new fossil-fuel projects, whether because of their potential for accidents—as in the disastrous pipeline rupture in Michigan that tainted nearly 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River with diluted bitumen from tar-sands oil—or because of global warming.