Editor's Note: In late September, SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Nebraska to find out more about the Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada plans to build to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. This is the seventh in a series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 here.
LINCOLN, Neb.—At first, it sounded too promising to resist.
The U.S. State Department would likely grant TransCanada a presidential permit to build and operate a 1,702-mile pipeline to carry heavy crude oil from tar sands mines in Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. If almost 300 miles of it was destined to cross private land in 14 Nebraska counties, why shouldn't property owners gain their share of easement dollars from the giant corporation?
Close to 100 of the 470 landowners along the Keystone XL route signed up with and paid dues to Landowners for Fairness, a group formed by local lawyer Stan Dobrovolny. He pledged to negotiate with TransCanada the most lucrative deal possible.
But some members now think those negotiations have gone awry. One, they feel uncomfortable having to sign a nondisclosure agreement—or gag order—to comply with requests from TransCanada. Two, the more they find out about Keystone XL, the less they want anything to do with it.
The terms have prompted them to speak out against the pipeline that, they say, compromises how they earn their living and the natural resources that make that rural lifestyle possible.
"The more I researched, the more I realized I didn't want this and we didn't need this," rancher and construction specialist Ernie Fellows told SolveClimate News. "I didn’t want these kind of hydrocarbons coming through my land."
Located just three miles from the South Dakota border in far northcentral Nebraska, his 580-acre ranch has been in the family since 1937. It's in Keya Paha County, in the heart of Nebraska's signature sandhills, near the Niobrara National Scenic River.
"It has taken me 20 years to restore blowouts," explains Fellows, referring to the arduous process of re-establishing vegetation on a hilly, unstable landscape created from layers of permeable sand resting just above the bountiful Ogallala Aquifer. "TransCanada doesn't seem to understand how long it takes grass to grow back.
"This land is like a Slurpee. If you spill something, it's gone," he continues. "And with a pipeline, it ain't a matter of 'if' but 'when' it will leak."
Removing the Gag
Fellows was asked to leave a mid-September meeting in Atkinson between TransCanada and Landowners for Fairness because he refused to sign the nondisclosure agreement required for entry.
Now he's not sure about his status with the group. But his persistent pursuit of information means the 65-year-old is loaded with questions and concerns about the pipeline.
For starters, he's nervous that TransCanada will pump the oil at such a high pressure that it will compromise the 36-inch-diameter steel pipe and cause larger leaks. And though the Calgary-based oil company has vowed to cover all pipeline expenses and meet the highest safety standards, Fellows fears property owners will be left financially stranded if anything goes wrong.
Landowner Teri Taylor signed the nondisclosure agreement so she could attend the Atkinson meeting. Though she can't talk to the press about what transpired there, she did say it became clear that the organizers seemed far too interested in their own financial gains. That, she says, prompted her to temporarily shed her cocoon of privacy and channel her pent-up frustration into action.
"I came from that meeting so disillusioned that I couldn't sleep," she explains. She's spent the last month hounding politicians and writing letters to newspaper editors. "Now I'm trying to stop something I think is wrong. I have little grandchildren who will grow up on this ranch. I realized that some day I have to be able to say that I tried to do something."
Five generations of her family have called the sandhills home, and her husband's family has been there almost as long. Together, Teri and Dennis operate a 20,000-acre ranch that stretches across three counties, just south of where Ernie Fellows lives. The Keystone XL pipeline would cross at least 2,000 acres of the Taylor property.
"This land isn’t just dirt and grass and trees and water," she says, pausing to catch her breath. "It is the lifeblood of my family. Every tract has special memories and stories attached to it."
If TransCanada claims to know so much about the sandhills, she asks, how can company officials think it's an appropriate route for an oil pipeline?