Some Nebraska Landowners Won’t Make Way for Oil Sands Pipeline

TransCanada is offering buyouts—and threats of eminent domain proceedings—to farmers and ranchers

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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 sixth in a series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 here.

HORDVILLE, Neb.—Randy Thompson points with a tanned and well-muscled forearm to one of the hundreds of sturdy cedar fence posts ringing his family’s 400-acre farm in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley.

“We’ve tried to dig holes in the spring and the posts would just float away,” he explains, laughing at the memory. “The holes fill up because the water table is just three- to four-feet deep. We’ve learned to do our fencing in the fall around here.”

That’s why it mystifies him that TransCanada is proposing to bury a pipeline for heavy crude four feet deep through a fragile, stunning and wondrous ecosystem that draws tourists eager to witness the migration of massive numbers of sandhill cranes, nourishes crops in a state where agriculture is king and provides drinking water for millions of Midwesterners.

The Calgary-based oil giant has offered to pay the Thompson family a lump sum somewhere in the thousands of dollars to construct a segment of what’s called the Keystone XL pipeline across an 80-acre portion of the farm where fully ripened feed corn is now on the verge of being harvested. That linear easement would amount to almost four of those 80 acres.

“This is just a big headache we didn’t want,” the 62-year-old says while pointing out his pickup truck window at holes left behind by long-ago gravel miners that are filled with water year-round. “If that pipeline leaks water into our aquifer, we have a full-blown disaster. And it doesn’t have to cross here. TransCanada just selected the most inexpensive and shortest route.”

At least one neighbor signed TransCanada’s voluntary contract almost immediately, claiming that it was impossible to fight a corporate behemoth. Thompson, however, is protective of the crop and cattle farm near Central City—christened the Lazy RT Ranch—that his parents, Richard and Frances, bought in 1975.

“I guess it’s the principle of the whole thing,” Thompson says in a melodic drawl, a blend of his Kansas and Nebraska upbringing. “They come tearing across our state, pay us a few bucks, and we’re supposed to be happy. That got my back up.

“And the more I checked it out, the more I found it was an issue worth fighting for. TransCanada told us we can either deal with their negotiators or deal with their attorneys. I said, ‘Bring it on. For a few thousand dollars, you’re not going to scare us.’”

One Legislator’s Effort to Help

By their nature, Nebraska ranchers and farmers are an independent and mostly reticent lot who stay out of the political fray. However, many seem to have found their voices since the Keystone XL issue percolated to the surface relatively recently.

That wasn’t the case just two years ago when TransCanada started installing a separate pipeline—confusingly called the Keystone—in eastern Nebraska where the soil is clay-based, not sandy. Completed in June, it is already carrying heavy crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands. Environmental activists say that first pipeline wasn’t even on their radar screen until they noticed trucks carting steel pipes along Interstate 80.

Furor over the yet-to-be-built Keystone XL—which can’t come to fruition unless the U.S. State Department grants a presidential permit—erupted in April when Nebraskans watched day after day as BP’s blown-out Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico spewed millions of gallons of oil and natural gas into what’s touted as the nation’s seafood supermarket.

If such an environmental tragedy could unfold on the ocean floor, Nebraskans wondered, what kind of irreparable damage could a leaking pipeline cause to their precious and irreplaceable Ogallala Aquifer and the delicate sandhills?

Some might call state Sen. Merton “Cap” Dierks prescient, but the 78-year-old veterinarian and rancher prefers to refer to himself as a practical protector of his home state’s natural resources. He became savvy about TransCanada when Keystone, the first pipeline, traversed through Cedar County, part of the sprawling district he represents in northeastern Nebraska.

Back in January, the Republican tried to advocate for the 470 or so landowners along the state’s almost 300-mile stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline by introducing a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would have required TransCanada to set aside money in a specially designated fund to cover expenses such as pipeline leaks, repairs and abandonment costs.

“I don’t think the landowners knew about the risk of the pipeline,” Dierks tells SolveClimate News in his office in Ewing, Neb. “I was trying to protect them from any adverse thing that could happen.”

The bill, however, didn’t garner the five votes it needed to emerge from the eight-member Natural Resources Committee, so it died when the legislative session closed in April.

“What happened?” Dierks asks rhetorically. In a nutshell, he says, the fossil fuels industry raised a stink and put the kibosh on the bill.

“I suppose the lobby effort was too great,” he says, adding that farmers and ranchers need to become more politically savvy and take solidarity more seriously as the nation wrestles with energy decisions that wield enormous consequences. “You have to understand that with everything around here you follow the money. If the money is there, then that’s what’s going to happen.”

It might be too late to protect landowners this January, when he has the next chance to reintroduce similar legislation. “I’ve been around a long time,” he says. “I know you’re going to win a few and lose a few. And this one I lost.”

Intent on Victory

Though the unfolding Keystone XL saga has left many Nebraska landowners disillusioned about the lack of protection they seem to have in their home state, it has also forced them to make uncomfortable forays into politics, question intimidating authorities, form bonds with environmental advocates and think long and hard about the sources of oil and gas they use to power their homes, vehicles and farms.

Like others, Thompson was especially mortified in August when TransCanada sent out letters encouraging property owners to sign their voluntary agreements within 30 days so the oil company wouldn’t have to resort to eminent domain proceedings.

That prompted first-term U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) to intervene on his constituents’ behalf with a harsh letter to TransCanada chief executive Russell Girling. In tandem, Bold Nebraska, a coalition of anti-pipeline organizations, launched a toll-free tip line, radio ads and a website that allows citizens and TransCanada employees to confidentially report abusive and questionable acts.

“I appreciate Johanns’s effort,” Thompson says. “The thing that really concerns me is that we’re looking at a foreign corporation imposing eminent domain on a Unites States citizen, and doing it for profit.”

He describes photos of tar sands mining from Alberta as “pretty frightening.” And even though a TransCanada spokesman insists that the heavy crude being pumped 1,702 miles from Canada to the Texas coastline refineries is destined for use in the United States, Thompson wonders if countries such as China will be Keystone XL beneficiaries.

As a farmer trying to emulate the conservationist tradition of his father and grandfather, Thompson credits the pipeline as the cause of his personal awakening. His blue eyes twinkle and he smiles sheepishly while mentioning how his wife compliments him for badgering politicians and writing letters to the editor about his plight.

“Wouldn’t you like to think that as a United States citizen, you’d have a few more rights than a foreign corporation?” he asks as the afternoon sun highlights sunflowers and native grasses such as little bluestem thriving near the Thompson farmhouse. “Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot, but I want to do my own negotiating. I don’t want some attorney from Omaha representing me.”

It’s the time of year when the greens of spring and summer give way to the subtle beauty of multihued yellows and golds that signal autumn on the Great Plains. Thompson is clearly native to this place. His very fiber has been shaped by years of roping cattle, harvesting crops, installing irrigation pipes and mending barbed-wire fences.

Now his overarching aim is to keep his family’s land as whole as possible.

“Sometimes I’m afraid people are going to say, ‘Oh, there’s another whiny farmer,’” Thompson says. “But the truth is that everybody in Nebraska ought to be concerned about this pipeline.”

Correction: the original version of this article misidentified Sen. Mike Johanns as a Democrat. He is a Republican.