High Country News: Keystone opposition began in a tiny Nebraska town

Keystone opposition began in a tiny Nebraska town

By Allen Best

To call Newport, Nebraska a small town inflates its size. Located on the edge of the sparsely populated Sand Hills, the hamlet has just 70 people. Like nearly all of Nebraska’s rural areas, it has been shedding residents.

Yet determined opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline first arose at Newport and other minuscule places on the Great Plains. Ranch and farm owners became riled up by what they considered the bullying tactics of Calgary-based TransCanada. Their opposition caught the attention of national environmental groups and climate-change activists like Bill McKibben, and they in turn made Keystone a centerpiece of their campaigns against fossil fuels. A winning campaign, as it turned out: President Obama rejected the pipeline on Nov. 6, saying that granting approval would have “undercut” our leadership on global climate change.

As with the civil rights movement 50 years before, the Keystone story testifies to the power of grassroots protest. Determined local activists when amplified by national allies can make a difference. The Keystone story, however, had some unlikely partners, as rural Nebraska bleeds conservative red. But the land agents for TransCanada who had begun banging on ranch-house doors were even more unpopular than Obama, as it turned out. The company’s preferred route nicked the corner of the state’s iconic Sand Hills, which lie over the Ogallala Aquifer. In springtime, the aquifer rises to the surface, and local farmers and ranchers are fiercely protective of both their water and their land.

One day in 2009, Lynda Buoy, who has a small ranch in the Sand Hills, went to Newport to talk about this with several ranch women at Sunny’s Café. The women, who ranged in age from 30 to over 70, didn’t know what to do. They’d received letters from TransCanada offering terms for easements, but also a thinly veiled warning: Accept this offer, or else your property will be condemned.

“They were devastated that this could happen in America,” says Buoy. Only later did they learn that TransCanada had no authority to make the threat.

Meetings started drawing large crowds, and environmental groups got involved. Longtime Sierra Club representative Ken Winston urged landowners to stand their constitutional grounds against a foreign corporation. Those messages resonated with conservatives who listened to Mike Huckabee’s radio program by day and watched Fox News at night.

The National Farmers Union passed a resolution in 2010, crafted with the aid of Graham Christensen, then-public affairs director for the Nebraska Farmers Union. The National Wildlife Federation sponsored trips by locals to testify in Washington, D.C. Money began flowing downward from national groups. If they were driven by different motives, the big environmental organizations and grassroots activists had a common goal.

In 2013, another unlikely pairing, called the Cowboy-Indian Alliance, was forged, partnering the landowners with the indigenous Ponca, Pawnee and Sioux along with other tribes in Canada. Keystone was like a car speeding by at 60 mph, says John K. Hansen, the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Ranchers and farmers slowed it down for closer inspection.

There are certain parallels with the civil rights movement. Fifty years ago this past August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. It did so only after what is now called “Bloody Sunday” took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, then a student activist from Georgia, was among the protesters injured that day as police waded into the marchers wielding clubs and firing tear gas. Local residents showed their pluck and their determination, insisting on their right as Americans to vote. Their courage caught the attention of the entire country.

Shortly after Obama’s announcement against the pipeline, environmental leaders proudly noted that this was the first defeat of a major infrastructure project for fossil fuels and urged further efforts to keep carbon in the ground.

That is not, however, a message that resonates in Nebraska. “I can guarantee you that none of these cowboys believe in climate change,” said Buoy last weekend from her home in the Sand Hills. “They know there’s something weird with the weather, but they don’t think it’s climate change.”

But Christensen, the former Farmers Union representative, has climate change very much in mind. From his farm north of Omaha, which has been in his family since 1867, he wants to push the energy revolution from the grassroots. Farmers, he says, need to be energy generators, harnessing the power of wind and other renewable resources. Working at the local level, he’s trying to help his neighbors see the light.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion syndicate of High Country News(hcn.org). He lives and writes in the Denver area.