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