Oil and Water in Nebraska: Elected Officials Ducking Pipeline Issue

This multipart series explores the election-season dynamics surrounding a plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska

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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 first in a series.

LINCOLN, Neb.—As a rule, oil and water don’t mix. And Nebraska environmental advocates would like to keep it that way.

That’s why they are trying to capitalize on this election season to halt—or at least redirect—TransCanada’s proposal to construct an Alberta-to-Gulf Coast pipeline through the Cornhusker State’s most precious aquifer and its most eye-catching and fragile landscape.

But it’s not especially easy to gain traction while going up against the promise of hundreds of jobs and millions in tax revenue for depleted state coffers from a well-heeled oil corporation, weak state laws and politicians who rely heavily on donations from the fossil fuel industry.

With oil from tar sands, conservationists know they are challenging a legacy created in 2001 when newly elected Vice President Dick Cheney organized secret meetings with a select cadre of insiders to forge a closer-to-home energy policy for the 21st century. Plus, as Midwesterners, they suspect international companies and decision-makers in the nation’s capital expect them to be compliant instead of combative.

“This is the dirtiest source of energy out there,” Jane Kleeb, the leader of the advocacy coalition Bold Nebraska, told SolveClimate News in an interview. “If we’re talking about making America energy independent, then we don’t need to be dependent on Iraq or Canada. We need to be exploring biofuels and wind. We’re woefully behind on that.”

It doesn’t make any sense for a state with an agricultural base and a blooming tourism effort to risk polluting those cash cows irreparably by soiling the Ogallala Aquifer and the sandhills, she added.

A decision about the controversial pipeline, known as Keystone XL, is in the hands of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because of the 1,702-mile pipeline’s international nature.

TransOcean requires a presidential permit to build and operate the 1,375-mile section that will start in Montana and continue through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The 36-inch diameter pipeline will have the capacity to deliver up to 900,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

Initially, a thumbs up or down was expected this autumn. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave anti-pipeline advocates a wider window for strategizing when it labeled the State Department’s environmental impact statement as “inadequate” in July. EPA officials cited shortcomings that included accounting for greenhouse gas emissions affiliated with the pipeline, safety and spill-response planning, and the impact on indigenous communities.

Now that the State Department has to revisit the issue, a decision isn’t expected until the first quarter of 2011.

“Are we going to get a few short-term jobs and economic activity while risking the lifeblood of the state for the future?” attorney Ken Winston, chief lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s Nebraska chapter, said in an interview with SolveClimate News. “In the world of risks, we believe that’s unacceptable.

“To quote John Paul Jones, ‘We haven’t yet begun to fight.’”

Nebraska’s Elected Officials Ducking the Issue

Not too surprisingly, Kleeb and Warren are discovering that finding a state politician to stand by their cause is akin to pulling teeth. Most wash their hands of it, claiming it isn’t front and center because it’s a federal issue.

“But we know Nebraskans are on our side with this pipeline,” said Kleeb, citing poll numbers released in mid-September by Bold Nebraska, Nebraska Wildlife and the Nebraska Sierra Club.

Those numbers show that 48 percent oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, 19 percent support it and 33 percent are undecided. The same poll also measured potential political repercussions of the pipeline.

For instance, a large majority want elected officials such as the governor and state legislators to be “active and vocal” in their inquiries about the pipeline. A full 84 percent called for these officials to be very active and 57 percent said they wouldn’t vote for politicians who weren’t active.

Still, in early September Republican Gov. Dave Heineman told a Nebraska reporter, “I just haven’t focused on that issue to any great extent because it’s a federal regulatory issue. So I’ve let our congressional delegation deal with that.”

Interestingly enough, Heineman didn’t mention a link to TransCanada that researchers at Common Cause’s Nebraska office turned up. Records at the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission show that Heineman, now running for a third term, accepted a $2,500 campaign contribution from TransCanada in January. Jon Bruning, the Republican attorney general who is also up for re-election, accepted the same amount from TransCanada, according to records.

“All of a sudden, TransCanada is giving money to the governor and attorney general when he we keep hearing that this is a national issue, not a state issue,” Jack Gould, state issues chair for Nebraska Common Cause, noted in an interview.

Tomorrow: One voice piping up on the campaign trail, and why Nebraska legislators aren’t taking charge