WASHINGTON—Nebraskans suspected that somebody on Capitol Hill would try to force the Obama administration to drastically speed up decision-making on the now-delayed Keystone XL pipeline.
They just never figured it would be one of their own.
The chutzpah of Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry in trying to fast track the pipeline has outraged Cornhuskers who labored for years to reroute the fiercely debated $7 billion project out of the environmentally sensitive Sandhills. Some are predicting that the seven-term Republican could be punching himself a one-way ticket out of Washington with this attempted legislative end-run.
"We feel like we're being totally undermined," rancher and farmer Randy Thompson told InsideClimate News. "I don't see how this wouldn't make him vulnerable in the next election. He might be in for a rude awakening in 2012."
House leadership appears intent on rolling Terry's measure into this week's vote on a mega-bill that features the extension of a payroll tax break as its centerpiece. Action could come as early as Tuesday as Congress scurries to wrap up loose ends before a Christmas break.
Terry's North American Energy Access Act sidesteps the State Department, which has authority over the project because the pipeline crosses an international border. Instead, it requires Calgary-based TransCanada to apply for a Keystone XL permit via the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—and give FERC just 30 days to act on the application. That would force the Obama administration to approve or reject the pipeline before the November 2012 presidential election.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said such legislation would be dead on arrival in his chamber. Meanwhile, a carefully treading-President Obama—hesitating to utter the word veto—has vowed to reject the bill if it crosses his desk.
Still, just the thought that Terry, 49, could be so completely tone deaf in his home state fires up Jane Kleeb. The executive director of Bold Nebraska was instrumental in uniting a diverse coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmental organizations.
The coalition fears Terry's measure could compromise the relocation of the Keystone XL and jeopardize the rights of landowners who live and work along the new, yet-to-be-determined route.
"He thinks he doesn't have to be accountable to Nebraskans," she said, noting that neither Terry nor his staffers spoke out for or against Keystone XL during the lengthy State Department hearing process. "Yet he's back in Washington, D.C., doing the bidding of Big Oil and quite frankly he should be ashamed of himself."
Terry's office did not respond to requests for comment from InsideClimate News.
State Sen. Ken Haar pointed out that what Terry is orchestrating in the nation's capital reminds him of an "Alice in Wonderland" theme where events just keep getting "curiouser and curiouser."
"It's just bizarre on his part," said Haar, a Democrat who represents a district in and around the capital city of Lincoln. "I guess the question is, has he been listening to Nebraskans? They've spoken pretty loudly. I don't know what he’s trying to accomplish other than getting his name in the newspapers."
Why Terry Spoke Up
What triggered Terry's bill is no mystery.
In early November, the Obama administration opted to delay its decision on Keystone XL in large part because Nebraskans so vociferously opposed it. State Department officials estimate an environmental analysis of a reroute through the state—one that would avoid the Sandhills and irreplaceable Ogallala Aquifer—wouldn't be complete until 2013.
Later that month, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman finally called a special session so Nebraska's 49 senators could tackle pipeline legislation. Haar was a longtime proponent of such action.
During the 15-day special session, TransCanada agreed to cooperate with the state Department of Environmental Quality to find a new route for the pipeline. And Heineman signed legislation that will fund an environmental study for the new route. Ultimately, the governor can grant a thumbs up or thumbs down to the relocation.
Originally, 254 miles of the Keystone XL pipeline would have been situated directly over the aquifer in Nebraska. Farmers there count on 92,685 irrigation wells to provide water for more than 8.5 million acres of crops and pastures.
Rerouting the pipeline and undergoing the necessary environmental review will take a considerable amount of time, Haar said.
"We're not talking about being done tomorrow," he said, adding that the new route hasn't even been drawn yet. "Lee Terry seems disconnected on what just happened in Nebraska. Either he's not listening or he isn't understanding. It's hard to tell. If he's saying that there's a federal law that overrides the state law, that just doesn't make sense."
Last of Terry in 2012?
Kleeb and numerous Nebraska landowners say Terry is miscalculating if he thinks his latest proposal is repercussion-free.
"I think Lee Terry believes he's invincible," Kleeb said. "We’ll see if we can translate our grassroots power into political action."
Already, at least four candidates are vying for Terry’s seat, traditionally a GOP stronghold covering a tiny eastern section of the state, including Omaha. Terry won 61 percent of the vote when he was re-elected in 2010.
Two Republicans, University of Nebraska at Omaha math professor Jack Heidel and Omaha financial adviser and former University of Nebraska quarterback Brett Lindstrom, are already preparing for the 2012 primary. Douglas County treasurer John Ewing and Omaha state Sen. Gwen Howard have entered the contest as Democrats.
"Lee Terry still thinks this is some sort of fringe environmental issue," Kleeb said about the 1,702-mile pipeline that would pump up to 830,000 barrels per day of heavy crude from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast. "It has never been that and it never will be that. It's a fundamental issue about fairness, landowners' rights and water. This issue has captivated our state for two years."
Part of a Pattern
Terry's latest legislative venture isn't at all shocking to John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
"The House agenda seems to be to put Obama in a political box between labor and the environment," Hansen said. "That's what it looks like and I suspect that's what it is."
Hansen views it as a redux to July when House Republicans persuaded 47 Democrats to join them in approving a Terry-sponsored measure that required the Obama administration to reach a decision on Keystone XL by Nov. 1. But the Senate chose not to act on that legislation.
"That was a rush to judgment about the relative benefits and virtues of the pipeline," Hansen said, adding that Terry seemed enraptured with arguments about energy independence, energy security and jobs and seemed oblivious about how TransCanada was treating landowners in his state. "It was frustrating from the beginning because Terry wasn't well-informed and clearly didn't understand the basics. When he was articulating his talking points, it was clear he hadn't done his research."
This latest stunt, Hansen said, makes his organization long for the days when Terry's boldest initiative on Capitol Hill was renaming an Omaha post office.
"What's ironic is that he has provided so precious little leadership over the years," he said. "Now here he is providing leadership and it's going in the wrong direction. I think we liked him better when he didn't do much."
Johanns Also Puzzles Ranchers
Rancher Susan Luebbe never paid much attention to Capitol Hill. But that changed several years ago when TransCanada seemed intent on burying part of the Keystone XL under a portion of the 4,800 acres her family rents and owns in Holt County.
Luebbe was so annoyed by threats to her livelihood that twice within the last year she has interrupted calving season to travel to Washington and vent her frustrations to legislators and State Department officials. She's convinced Terry’s attempt to hurry along the Keystone XL will only serve to energize Nebraskans to replace career politicians with responsive elected officials.
"This most definitely will turn political," she said, adding that the momentum will carry over to next November. "It will be a noose around Terry's neck but he just doesn't know it yet. That arrogant attitude is going to put him in the loser seat. Fortunately, Obama is listening to us."
Terry's bill, she said, is yet another indicator that he has lost touch with constituents.
"This is about not being respectful of the people they are representing," Luebbe said. "Do they think we are just going to roll over? They think we will forget, but we will remember. This is not something that will go away in a month or a couple of years."
Neither Luebbe nor Thompson, whose 400-acre family farm is in central Nebraska's Platte River Valley, is any too enamored with the recent behavior of Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns either.
The Republican, serving his first term as a U.S. senator, supported their effort to get the pipeline out of the Sandhills by repeatedly calling for Keystone XL decision-makers at the State Department to select an easterly route.
Now, however, Johanns is on board with a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), which would require the Obama administration to issue a permit for Keystone XL within 60 days of the measure's passage. It does allow the president to deny the permit if he finds that the project is not in the national interest. Senate leadership has dismissed the measure as untenable.
"All along, Johanns was a champion for us," Thompson said about the former Nebraska governor, who resigned to become secretary of agriculture under the George W. Bush administration. "His reversal is disappointing. It's just really hard to understand what these guys are doing."
Paul Donohue, a spokesman for Johanns, sent along a news release in response to queries about the senator's support for Lugar's bill. It states that Nebraska still would be allowed to take its time rerouting the pipeline around the Sandhills. However, the bill would require Obama to act on the rest of the Keystone XL route in five other states before November to ensure that the president's decision "is not delayed for political purposes."
Still Able to Laugh
Several years ago, TransCanada sought an easement from Thompson to construct a segment of Keystone XL through 80 acres where the family grows feed corn.
"It's just extremely frustrating when your own elected leaders who are supposed to represent your state and its citizens and resources are more interested in representing a foreign corporation," Thompson said. "That just makes my blood boil."
Though he's frustrated with this latest legislative inside-the-beltway drama, Thompson has maintained his sense of humor about it.
Upon being reminded that the latest polls show Congress ringing in with a 9 percent approval rating, he quipped, "Well that might be just eight points too high."