Some might have been surprised to hear that plans to build a 1,700-mile oil pipeline through the Midwest to the Gulf Coast — a source of new oil and thousands of jobs — would drive an emotional fault line down the middle of the conservative heartland. But any skepticism would have quickly evaporated here in the noisy bleachers of the West Holt High School gymnasium.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline — the subject of public hearings convened by the State Department last week along the route from Montana to Texas — was alternately described as a plot by a foreign corporation to exploit America, a potentially perilous polluter of the nation's greatest freshwater resource, the answer to America's energy insecurity, a generator of the last great family-wage jobs and, oh yes, a dangerous new instigator of global warming.
Possibly it is all of these things. That's why the determination of whether it's in the "national interest" to build the $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline is shaping up as one of the most fraught political and environmental battles the Obama administration faces as it goes into the 2012 election. The State Department says it will make its determination by the end of the year.
Over this pipeline, both major parties' traditional political bases are at each others' throats — environmentalists versus organized labor, oil industry versus farmers and ranchers — in a way that has turned typical politics on its head and caused Nebraska to emerge as, unexpectedly enough, a pivot point on national policy.
For environmentalists, the Canadian pipeline company TransCanada's Keystone XL project has become a symbol of rampant greenhouse gas emissions; for business, a generator of jobs and competition with China; for impoverished neighborhoods that will be the recipients of the oil's emissions, an example of social injustice; for the new oil boomtowns in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, a way to get their product to market.
"When I came into town, the highway was lined with American flags. But you know what? I did not see one Canadian flag. So why is a foreign corporation in our country, in our state, dictating to us where they're going to put a giant pipeline?" Randy Thompson, a landowner in Merrick County, Neb., who's been fighting TransCanada, said at last week's hearing in Atkinson. "Maybe it's time for America to stop being a doormat and we get some politicians that actually have some backbone."
Thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines already snake across the Midwest, including the initial Keystone pipeline, which opened in 2010, that carries Canadian crude oil into the U.S. as far as Oklahoma and Illinois.
Residents emphasized that they were not opposed to pipelines — just to burying one under the Sandhills. The Sandhills are the biggest undisturbed natural ecosystem in the Great Plains, full of cranes and herons and tundra swans, yet highly vulnerable to erosion when dug up or otherwise disturbed.
The proposed 36-inch-wide steel pipeline would carry the highly viscous bitumen extracted from Alberta's tar sands under processes that create substantial greenhouse gas emissions, one of the issues the State Department will consider in deciding whether the pipeline is in the national interest.
On the plus side, the pipeline would shift some of America's energy focus from the Middle East toward its ally and biggest trading partner. TransCanada says it would lead to more than 120,000 new U.S. jobs, 7,500 of them in Nebraska, and $20 billion in economic growth, including more than $11 million in state and local taxes for Nebraska.
Ordinarily, this is a program that a state like Nebraska, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964, could easily get its arms around. But the pipeline's proposed route across the fragile Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer — an underground basin the size of Lake Erie that provides water to much of Nebraska and seven other states — has caused normally conservative farmers and ranchers to take up protest banners and write hate mail to their Republican legislators.
Last week, with the State Department road show coming to town, the Lincoln Journal Star declared it was "time to stand up for the Sandhills."
"In Memorial Stadium, fans know that when the opposing team is approaching the end zone, it's time to stand up and get loud. Supporters of the perilous pipeline route now are reaching for the end. Get loud," it advised.
So people did.
A network of water
The grass-covered Sandhills stretch across 20,000 square miles of northern Nebraska, with their sand acting as a natural filter for the Ogallala aquifer underneath.
The land in this part of Nebraska is as productive as it is because the aquifer's water table is so high, with the water often running right up to the root lines; in many areas, the water forms puddles and ponds on the surface, and sprouts free-flowing artesian wells.
"If they have a leak, well, 40% of what's running through that pipeline is carcinogens. So they say they'd only ruin a little bit of the aquifer. Well, a little bit's too much. This is our lifeblood here, this water," said rancher Todd Cone, plunging a posthole digger into the prairie grass and drawing water just 10 inches below.