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 third in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
LINCOLN, Neb.—Thus far, no elected official in Nebraska has come out for or against TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline that will stretch close to 300 miles through 14 counties of the Cornhusker State.
Perhaps wary of backlash from labor unions or oil companies, they seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach.
This attitude vexes the advocacy coalition Bold Nebraska and other environmental organizations that want the pipeline nixed or relocated. It also perplexes many of the 470 landowners who would receive lump sum payments from TransCanada if they agree to allow the pipeline to cross their property.
If Gov. Dave Heineman and other state officials keep claiming it's a federal issue, they are asking, then why is Nebraska so quiet on the congressional front?
Both of the state's U.S. senators—neither up for re-election this year—are involved in the pipeline issue to some degree. They haven't voiced opposition but nor have they followed the lead of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who recently called on the U.S. State Department to expedite approval of the pipeline permit.
Democrat Ben Nelson met with a State Department undersecretary in early July, asking that all economic and environmental impacts be considered, along with the viewpoints of all Nebraskans. On Aug. 11, Mike Johanns sent a sharply worded letter to TransCanada chief executive Russell Girling after the company threatened Nebraska landowners with condemnation proceedings if they didn't move quickly to sign voluntary easement agreements.
However, the state's three House representatives have been considerably less aggressive.
Little Traction in Congressional Races
If built, Keystone XL would be confined to Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Adrian Smith is vying for a third term. It's an enormous rural swath covering all but an eastern sliver of the state that is home to both Lincoln and Omaha, the state's population centers.
Omaha is also home to a TransCanada office. (The company is based in Calgary, Alberta.) Half of the oil company's roughly 4,300 employees work in U.S. cities, said company spokesman Terry Cunha.
Environmentalists are especially disappointed that Smith and his fellow Republican Rep. Lee Terry, whose tiny district encompasses greater Omaha, haven't been more vocal about their position on the pipeline.
Smith won his last election with 77 percent of the vote and serves on the House Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Science and Technology committees.
Right now, Smith's Nov. 2 opponents—Democrat Rebekah Davis and conservative independent Dan Hill—don't seem to be gaining on him. However, some politically savvy Nebraskans think a three-way race this time around could lead to a Nov. 2 surprise for Smith.
Smith spokesman Charles Isom told SolveClimate News that Smith has been tracking the issue closely.
"He is committed to responsibly advancing our nation's energy agenda and encouraging investment in Nebraska, however he remains concerned about the protection of our natural resources and the rights of private property owners," Isom wrote in an e-mail.
TransCanada's threat to use eminent domain to gain access to private land—before the State Department has even issued a presidential permit for Keystone XL—has raised the hackles of property owners and anti-pipeline activists.
So it seems somewhat odd that Smith hasn't stepped into the fray more boldly when his campaign literature touts that he has "fought to protect our local farmers and ranchers from onerous government regulations which threaten to take away their land and their livelihood."
Terry, trying for a seventh term, is in a competitive race with Democrat Tom White that political handicappers are calling a toss-up. Terry won his last term with just 52 percent of the vote. For the most part, he has been mum on the pipeline, even though he serves on the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee. In 2009, he voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the House bill to regulate greenhouse gases via a cap-and-trade system.
When SolveClimate News contacted Terry's office, spokeswoman Lisa Ellis issued this statement: The entire Nebraska delegation is "concerned about this project, but feel the process of studies and public hearings is adequate and should continue."
White, Terry's opponent, has not made the pipeline an issue in his campaign because it's not resonating with voters in the Omaha region, White's campaign manager Ian Russell said in an interview.
"Jobs, jobs, jobs are the first three things we're hearing from voters," Russell said. "On the campaign trail, what we're hearing about from folks is jobs and the deficit."
Of course, observers note, as a Democrat campaigning in Nebraska's largest city, where the Omaha Federation of Labor has endorsed the pipeline project, White has to tread carefully. Thus, White hasn't registered a clear yes or no. Instead, he talks about how projects such as this should generate local jobs and use American-made steel.
"Both sides make good points," Russell said about the pipeline debate. "It's unfortunate to have head-butting between jobs for Nebraskans and protecting Nebraska's natural resources. So it's good the public is having a prolonged period to debate this."
Smith, Terry and their fellow Republican incumbent—Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, whose district is the Lincoln area—did not sign a pair of dueling partisan letters that other representatives sent to the State Department during the summer.
In a July 16 letter, 35 Republicans encouraged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to approve Keystone XL in the interest of energy security. That followed a June 23 letter signed by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California and 49 other Democrats. Waxman's plea urged Clinton to consider the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil to figure out if it consistent with the Obama Administration's clean energy and climate change priorities.
Overcoming the Big Bucks
Lately, Nebraska airwaves and newspapers have been saturated with TransCanada advertisements that seduce listeners with talk of a project that's just four feet deep but can deliver hundreds of new jobs, $150 million in tax revenue and energy from a friendly neighbor. They tout the Keystone XL as being "good for Nebraska and good for America."
But not everybody is buying it. A former spokesman for TransCanada had told the environmental coalition that a few hundred Nebraskans, at most, would likely qualify for temporary, low-paying positions, and that the high-paying, steady union jobs would go to out-of-state workers.
"The pipeline is a terrible idea every way you look at it," said attorney Ken Winston, chief lobbyist for the Sierra Club's Nebraska chapter, adding that recent oil pipeline leaks in Michigan, Illinois and elsewhere prove that no pipeline is impenetrable. "We don't want to be promoting this dirty process, and we want to protect Nebraska's resources."
TransCanada's Cunha pointed out that other oil pipelines are already buried in the Ogallala Aquifer.
"We recognize the importance of the aquifer," he said. "We would be building the safest pipeline system in Nebraska, if not the United States."
Jane Kleeb, the leader of Bold Nebraska, noted that it costs $80,000 to advertise during radio broadcasts of the ever-popular University of Nebraska football games. TransCanada is ponying up for at least three ads this season.
Though those figures dwarf the coalition's relatively puny anti-pipeline budget, the environmental groups will be launching their own Nebraska ad campaign soon.
"TransCanada is misinforming Nebraskans," Kleeb said. "We are not going to give up the fight on this."
Backing down, she insisted, is not an option.
"We're like the Rebel Alliance going up against the Death Star," Kleeb concluded with a smile. "But we'll take on that challenge of having our ragtag coalition beat up on the Death Star any day."