The decision to detour the Keystone XL around land owned by its noisiest opponents, plus the distraction of the fall election, has lowered the volume of protests against the proposed pipeline.
In the reroute TransCanada released in early September, 55 miles of the pipeline still run through Holt County, an area that sits above the aquifer and is especially vulnerable to oil spills due to its permeable soils and high water table. Despite a few small adjustments, the route through the county is nearly identical to the route TransCanada, the pipeline operator, proposed in April.
The project's opponents blame the sudden drop in activism on the fact that local environmental groups that organized much of the anti-pipeline publicity are now focused on the November elections. They also say that TransCanada blunted the opposition by moving the pipeline off of land owned by some of the pipeline's most vocal opponents, including Karl Connell, Calvin Dobias, Richard Miles, Joe Moller, Randy Thompson, and Kurt and Laura Meusch.
"When you look at a map, when you know the landowners, [you see] they've avoided the landowners who've gone to the press," said Ben Gotschall, energy director for the advocacy group Bold Nebraska. "They're just figuring out the easiest way to get their pipeline built."
Gotschall said the reroute has disrupted his group's momentum, forcing it to reach out to people whose land was recently added to the route and who aren't necessarily familiar with the project.
Ken Winston, a policy advocate for the Sierra Club and one of the pipeline's most vocal opponents, told InsideClimate News last week that he is so busy working to get state Sen. Ken Haar re-elected that he hasn't even had time to study the new route.
Haar, a Democrat, played a prominent role last year in the successful effort to force TransCanada to move the pipeline out of the sensitive Sandhills region. He's made that a cornerstone of his campaign. But like Winston, Haar hasn't had time to examine the latest reroute.
"It's out of my hands at this point," he said. "Sometimes you have to sit back and let the process happen."
Rancher Vows to Stay Involved
The current lull worries Calvin Dobias, who operates a cattle ranch in Holt County. Although TransCanada has routed the pipeline away from his land, Dobias said he will continue to fight the project. His land is crisscrossed by eight gravel-bed springs fed by the Ogallala aquifer. Because the water table is so high, the springs flow almost year-round. Like other landowners, Dobias fears a leak would contaminate the water source that sustains not only his ranch but also provides water for 78 percent of Nebraskans.
Dobias said both the Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska "have calmed down" in recent weeks. And he thinks TransCanada made a strategic move when it shifted the route away from outspoken pipeline critics.
"I think they did it to take some of the pressure off," Dobias said. "And believe me it did. I can only do what the [new] people on the route want me to do. And they don't want to be as involved as [I was]."
In an email, TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said "[r]outing decisions were made based on environmental and a number of considerations, and were based on direction we have received from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. A new route would eliminate some of the previous landowners while bringing in new ones and we recognize this."
Gotschall sees the lastest reroute as a mark of success for the anti-pipeline movement, even though the opponents in Holt County didn't get most of what they wanted. It tell us that "what we're doing is working," he said, because TransCanada shifted the route rather than continuing to confront the vocal landowners. "We've gotten TransCanada's attention and they've done some things differently as a result of our efforts."
But Gotschall also said the reroute has forced Bold Nebraska to regroup. He's now busy calling each of the 50 to 75 newly affected landowners, a time-consuming process that requires forging new connections and arranging meetings to discuss how the pipeline will impact their lives.
Haar, the state senator, said changes could still be made to the route, because a number of state decisions are still pending. The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is reviewing the latest route and is expected to publish its findings in the next few months. Meanwhile, three landowners are suing the state over its pipeline siting law. A victory for them could result in a more rigorous Keystone XL environmental review.
Three Attempts to Settle on Route
The latest route marks TransCanada's third attempt to get the pipeline approved in Nebraska.