When the Obama administration rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline last week, it cited concerns over the project's route through Nebraska as one reason for its decision. That segment of the pipeline is now being rerouted, in response to Nebraskans who spent years persuading lawmakers to move the tar sands pipeline—intended to carry crude oil from Alberta, Canada to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast—out of the Nebraska Sandhills, a fragile ecosystem that overlies the Ogallala aquifer.
Nebraska state Sen. Ken Haar, a 68-year-old Democrat who is nearing the end of his first term, played a key role in the movement's success. Haar has worked as a science teacher, business owner and inventor, and is a former executive director of the state's Democratic Party. He helped found the Save Our Sandhills coalition, a non-partisan group that includes organizations as diverse as the Sierra Club and the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska. Haar was also the first public official to call for a special session of the legislature to discuss a pipeline reroute.
In November, that special session was finally held, and an agreement was reached with TransCanada to move the pipeline out of the Sandhills. One of the bills passed during the session gave the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) authority to study alternative pipeline routes.
In an interview with InsideClimate News, Haar talked about his plans for the future, why he chose to get involved in the Keystone XL controversy and the importance of citizen activism. He also warned that the public must remain vigilant, because the pipeline will likely be built.
How do you feel about President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL?
There's a political game going on in Washington. We did what we needed to do for Nebraska, and we can't control what's going on in Washington. Now, other forces are going to have to go after it.
When did you first hear about the pipeline, and what was your initial reaction?
It was probably three years ago, and [at first] I wasn't disturbed about it. A lot of things have happened in the meantime—the oil spill in the Gulf, the Kalamazoo River spill, the Yellowstone River spill. All of those have caught our attention to the fact that there can be spills that are very damaging to the environment.
So how did you get involved?
About a year ago, I was at a conference put on by the Center for Rural Affairs, and a young man gave a presentation on Keystone XL and where it was going to go and where it came from. I left that meeting just feeling like we've got to do something. There were some groups—Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club—already working, but they were working to get a ballot initiative that would have gone on the 2012 ballot, which is just too late. We figured that the pipeline would be approved before Jan. 1st of this year.
So as I talked with my wife on the way home, we just said, 'This is my role.' That's when it started.
In August 2011 I wrote an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald asking for a special session in the legislature. The citizen groups had also realized this pipeline would probably go through if you worked through a ballot initiative. So when I suggested the special session, they jumped on board. It was three or four intensive months of work. And the amazing thing is there were two things Nebraskans were talking about this fall. One of them was Cornhusker football, and the other was Keystone pipeline. Everybody seemed to know about both and have strong feelings about both.
Have you ever been to the Sandhills?
We've gone canoeing a number of times on the Niobrara River, which is a pristine river up there. A year ago and a half ago, I got invited up to one of the Sandhills ranches to watch cattle branding, which was quite an experience. And I got my car stuck very badly...To get to the place I was supposed to be, you turn off the state highway onto the rancher's road, and from the ranch house there was another road that was just sand. And I thought, because I had a van, that would take care of it. I dug that [car] in right up to the axles. And I realized how fragile that environment is.
Your constituents live in and near the city of Lincoln, more than 100 miles outside the Sandhills region. How did they react to your stance on the pipeline?
We depend on agriculture and we depend on water. And if there were a major spill in some of those rivers in the Sandhills, we would be drinking that water in Lincoln.
We had sent out a survey [to my constituents], and overwhelmingly, people are in favor of two things: one is protecting our water, and the other is giving Nebraska a place at the table. That sentiment is high in Nebraska—that the federal government should stay out unless they're needed. So this whole thing with TransCanada and the State Department being able to make a decision that affects all of us didn't sit well with many people.