In the path of the pipeline

Part 1: In Nebraska, the Keystone fight is personal

Part 1: In Nebraska, the Keystone fight is personal

By Peter Moskowitz for Al Jazeera America

Photos by Andrew Burton / Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Gnats hover over land near where the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline will pass near Polk, Nebraska, October 11, 2014.

Published on Thursday, October 30, 2014

BRADSHAW, Neb. — The only sign of the six-year fight over the 400 acres of land that belong to Shannon and Kevin Graves is a wooden stick on the edge of a cornfield across from their modest home, located down a dirt road about an hour west of Lincoln.

The stick marks where a section of the Keystone XL pipeline may one day be laid.

Each day, as their nephew Daniel tends their cornfields, Kevin and Shannon Graves drive about 15 minutes away to their store, Tradition Hardware, located in the one-street town of Polk. Over the years, that daily drive past the stick has morphed into a reminder that, even as the battle over the Keystone XL has ignited a renewed environmental movement that sways state, national and international politics, at the end of the day, the pipeline fight is a local one.

“It’s not a political issue for us, or an environmental issue,” Shannon Graves said on a recent Saturday as her husband helped customers at their store. “When it’s 275 feet from your house, it’s personal.”

Daniel Graves, 26-year-old nephew of Shannon Graves, collects stray ears of corn while harvesting the Graves farm in Polk, Nebraska, October 11, 2014, top. Farm owner Shannon Graves in front of her home, left. A wooden post marks the precise spot where the proposed pipeline would pass through her property. (Click to enlarge images)

Shannon and Kevin Graves weren’t politically active before a representative of TransCanada came to their house and informed them that their family’s land sat on the pipeline’s proposed route. Since then, they’ve changed, testifying at hearings, traveling around the state to educate other landowners about the environmental impacts of oil spills, and refusing to sign an easement from TransCanada that would allow the company to place a section of its 1,179-mile crude oil pipeline through their family’s land in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.

In that way, the Graveses are typical of those involved in the pipeline fight in Nebraska. The Keystone has activated once politically dormant sections of the state, creating alliances between liberals, independents and conservatives. Those alliances have drawn national attention to a state that until recently was mostly associated with friendliness, agriculture and its University of Nebraska Big Ten football team, the Cornhuskers.

“In Nebraska, you’ve got the left and the right and the middle,” Kevin Graves says. “You can meet at the pipeline.

A sign against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is posted to a tree on the Graves' property, left. An oil train passes through Lincoln, Nebraska, right. (Click to enlarge images)

The Keystone XL pipeline has been controversial since shortly after multinational energy giant TransCanada announced the project back in 2008. The $5.4 billion pipeline would transport about 850,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to an existing network of pipelines from Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, where the U.S.’s biggest oil refineries are located.

The oil sands, sometimes called tar sands, lie beneath a Wisconsin-size area of Alberta. There, viscous oil is mined from rock formations. The process of turning the substance into usable oil creates several times more carbon than conventional oil development. Environmentalists argue that building the Keystone XL would guarantee further development of the oil sands, which could cause enough carbon pollution to render useless any North American effort to slow global warming.

Supporters of the pipeline counter that much of the oil from Alberta is already flowing, via train and other pipelines, to refineries all over the U.S. and Canada. And they say that despite the carbon pollution, the sands are the only way to reduce the U.S. dependence on oil from conflict-ridden countries in the Middle East.

The pipeline also has become caught up in one of America’s most familiar political tropes: the idea that those who want to protect the environment are at odds with those who want industrialization to provide thousands of jobs to blue-collar Americans in need of work in post-recession America.

A sign for Ben Sasse, a Republican running for U.S. Senate who supports the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, Fremont, Nebraska. (Click to enlarge images)

Because it crosses an international border, the Keystone needs to be approved by the Obama administration, which has delayed a decision on the pipeline several times. A decision is now expected sometime after the November midterm elections, but how soon after remains unclear.

Those delays have allowed for anger to brew at a local level, and of all the states the pipeline will pass through — Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska — Nebraska seems to be where that anger has most tangibly turned into action. “Earlier, people felt like they couldn’t dissent,” says Virginia Meyer, an organizer in Nebraska at the Center for Rural Affairs. “We’re pretty passive folk. We don’t want to create a stir. The pipeline changed that.”

In Montana and South Dakota, TransCanada has been able to convince virtually every resident who owns land through which the pipeline is planned to run to sign on to the project. But in Nebraska, the company has struggled to get landowners on board. For years, more than a third of the 500 Nebraskans with land that would be used for the pipeline have refused to sign easements.

TransCanada now says 84 percent have consented. But activists say many of those people have been pressured into signing, as U.S. law would allow the company to use eminent domain to put the pipeline through their land regardless of whether they signed easements.

In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, TransCanada representative Mark Cooper wrote, “There are people who are going to oppose any sort of development no matter what, whether it’s a pipeline, a windmill or a nuclear facility.…. We work tirelessly at being a good neighbor and keep open and honest communications with all of our neighbors.”

But even as more people sign on, the controversy between landowners and TransCanada has changed politics in the state.

A sign for Dave Domina, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate who is against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, near Polk, Nebraska. (Click to enlarge images)

Dave Domina, a lawyer who made a name for himself in Nebraska representing landowners fighting TransCanada, is now the state’s Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Domina says he credits the Keystone for some of the support he’s received.

“We are pretty nonpartisan below the presidential line,” he says. “What’s happening here that’s interesting politically is that landowners who would ordinarily not be very politically active now are.”

There’s no doubt that Nebraskans against the pipeline face an uphill battle.

In the limited polling that’s taken place for the Nebraska Senate race, Domina is running far behind Republican Ben Sasse. About 60 percent of Nebraskans support the pipeline, according to several polls. And polling suggests a majority of Americans are in favor of building it, too.

Still, the alliances built in Nebraska may be the best chance people have for stopping the pipeline.

Bold Nebraska, an organization opposed to the construction of the Keystone pipeline, has erected a "Clean Energy Barn," directly in the path of the proposed pipeline route. The barn honors locals who have participated in the fight against the pipeline, right. (Click to enlarge images)

Led by Bold Nebraska, a nonprofit that has a growing national profile, activists in 2011 convinced state lawmakers to push TransCanada to redraw its planned route around the state’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills, causing the project’s first major delay.

A lawsuit led by Domina and supported by Bold Nebraska is also responsible for the most recent delays. The lawsuit, filed in 2012, challenges a law passed by the state’s legislature that gave Gov. Dave Heineman the ability to approve the Keystone’s route through Nebraska. Activists contend that the pipeline proposal should go through the state’s Public Service Commission, which is responsible for approving a variety of infrastructure that runs through the state.

The suit is currently being heard in the state’s Supreme Court.

“If we win, TransCanada is looking at another year-and-a-half process of getting the pipeline approved in Nebraska,” says Jane Kleeb, the director of Bold. “At that point the pipeline project may die from its own weight.”

The lawsuit also triggered a delay at the federal level: In April, the Obama administration announced it would once again push back a decision on the pipeline, citing the pending Nebraska case as its main reason.

Crossing an international border means the pipeline needs presidential approval. But the law requiring a presidential permit for cross-border pipelines could theoretically be changed by an act of Congress. Many Republicans have promised to vote on such a bill after the midterms. Assuming Republicans win a majority of the Senate this year, the Keystone could be approved by the House and Senate within weeks of the election. But the Nebraska lawsuit could still be a sticking point.

Even if the pipeline does eventually go through Nebraska, environmental activists say the fight that started in the state has altered the way people think about environmental politics.

“The environmental movement for a long time thought their fight was going to be waged on Capitol Hill and Wall Street,” says Jamie Henn, a co-founder of, one of the most prominent national anti-Keystone groups. “[Nebraska] has shown that we need to focus along the highways and byways in these rural communities.”

Activists at the local level seem to agree.

Cattle farmer Ben Gotschall moves a portion of his herd to a new field for grazing, October 11, 2014 in Raymond, Nebraska. Signs from Gotschall's failed run for Nebraska Public Power District subdivision one lie in his barn, left. Gotschall pulls a hose to bring water to his cattle, right. (Click to enlarge images)

Ben Gotschall is a fifth-generation rancher who raises grass-fed cows and produces organic milk at his farm outside Lincoln. Like Kevin and Shannon Graves, and so many others in Nebraska, Gotschall said he wasn’t politically active before the Keystone was announced. But once he realized it would pass near his ranch, he began educating himself and driving to other farms, talking to farmers and ranchers about the potential for the Keystone to leak onto environmentally sensitive Nebraska land.

“I grew up with agriculture, so I saw the pipeline as a direct threat to my home and the people who live here,” he said recently at his farm as he assisted a group of locals who had come to butcher their own veal.

“At first I was on my own,” Gotschall said. “But then I realized there were people like me all over the place that just didn’t know there was anybody out there. Now I’m helping people realize they have power.”

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