By MARY PIPHER
Published: April 17, 2013
I GREW up in Nebraska. My great-grandparents homesteaded here. Generally, Nebraskans are a polite, cautious people more interested in weather than politics, and in pie than causes. That is, until recently.
In 2008 TransCanada announced plans for its Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands crude oil across the state’s fertile Sand Hills region and over the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital source of fresh water for irrigation. But it wasn’t until after the BP oil spill in 2010 that most Nebraskans became concerned. Suddenly, small groups of people gathered in living rooms, churches and cafes to discuss what might happen in the event of a spill or leak.
Nebraska is a red state and generally not friendly to environmentalists, but the proposed pipeline rejiggered our political landscape. Groups like Audubon Nebraska, Bold Nebraska, the Farmers Union, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club worked together to educate and activate our citizens. The League of Women Voters and college students joined to stop what we called the Keystone Extra-Leaky. In the western part of our state, landowners told of battling threats from TransCanada that their land would be seized via eminent domain. At a Cornhusker football game at the University of Nebraska, when a TransCanada ad appeared on the Jumbotron, thousands of fans booed.
Many people became involved in politics for the first time. As a Dippin’ Dots ice cream vendor said, “I didn’t know I was an activist until I had a chance to be one.” Newly minted activists organized potlucks, educational forums, music benefits, tractor pulls, poetry readings, flashlight rallies, wildflower drops in Capitol offices and pumpkin-carving protests. Grandmothers created the Apple Pie Brigade and arrived every Monday at the governor’s mansion with small gifts and letters opposing the project. In 2011, bowing to public pressure, Nebraska’s extremely conservative governor, Dave Heineman, asked President Obama to stop TransCanada from building the pipeline through our Sand Hills and over the aquifer.
Our activism was polite and respectful. Our common language was our love of our state and our hopes for our children. As the rancher Randy Thompson said, “There is no red water or blue water, there is clean water or dirty water.”
Now our governor and many of our politicians support a proposed new route for the Keystone XL, based on a flawed report by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality that claims that the pipeline would avoid the Sand Hills — a matter of sharp dispute — but that acknowledges that it will still cross the aquifer. According to a poll of rural Nebraskans last August by the University of Nebraska’s Center for Applied Rural Innovation, 65 percent said the pipeline should avoid the Sand Hills and the aquifer. TransCanada’s new plan doesn’t truly avoid either.
Farmers, ranchers, urbanites, Republicans and Democrats, students and senior citizens as well as native peoples continue to oppose this pipeline. On a frigid Tuesday night four months ago in the small town of Albion, 800 people attended a state hearing on the project. Today, citizens will gather at a hearing on the pipeline in Grand Island.
How did this amazing set of alliances ever happen? In part, our unity came from our shared history and geography. Many of us are the relatives of homesteaders and modern farmers and ranchers. Whatever our politics, we all believe in the sanctity of home. In the Beef State, we understand the importance of water, especially today, when every county in Nebraska suffers drought conditions.
Spills in other states have been devastating, and our first responders, many of whom are volunteers in remote areas, worry not only about what chemicals might be added to the crude oil to ease its flow through the pipeline, but also about their ability to handle accidents.
TransCanada made the mistake of bullying our fiercely independent farmers and ranchers. Landowners say the company threatened to take their land if they didn’t cooperate and warned them that later offers of money would be much smaller if they delayed. TransCanada also insisted, landowners say, that they sign papers agreeing not to talk to the press or anyone about their agreements.
Many of our citizens had seen their parents or grandparents struggle to hold on to family land, and they weren’t about to give up their rights without a fight. Our government wasn’t helping, so they realized they needed to save themselves. Our citizen engagement arose from feelings of powerlessness. TransCanada had access to our legislators and the governor, but ordinary citizens, doing what we had been taught to do in our civics books, like writing or talking to our legislators, had virtually no impact. We had to create new ways to influence our politicians.
Today, we still don’t know what will happen with this pipeline. But we do know what has happened to us. Our coalition allowed us to transform our feelings of sorrow, fear, anger and helplessness into something stronger and more durable. We became agents of our fates and joined together in what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called a “beloved community.” We became a state of ordinary heroes who decided that money couldn’t buy everything and that some things were sacred.
The great global skirmishes of this century will be fought over food, energy, water and dirt. Our remote, conservative, flyover state seems like an odd place to make a stand for clean water and fertile land, but we will be at the heart of those battles. We are fighting not only for ourselves but for people all over the world. And we know that everywhere, in their particular places, people are fighting for us. The campaign to stop the Keystone XL is not over. It won’t be over until we give up, and we aren’t giving up.
Mary Pipher, a psychologist, is the author of “The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture.”