LINCOLN — Ken Winston still hears the laughter.
In the autumn of 2011, the former Sierra Club lobbyist walked the halls of the Nebraska State Capitol, seeking support for a special session on the Keystone XL pipeline. No one seriously talked about killing the project then. Most just wanted it moved out of the Sand Hills, where the groundwater is just below porous soil, within easy reach of a potential oil spill.
“I remember people laughing at us,” Winston said. “People treated it like it was a joke.”
But the special session took place, and 15 days later, the company behind the pipeline agreed to move out of the Sand Hills.
In light of President Barack Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL on Friday, the incremental victories by Nebraska pipeline opponents added up to something larger. And while the pipeline would morph into a symbol of the larger struggle over climate change, Nebraska never surrendered its position as ground zero in the national fight.
[ PDF: Full text of State Department's rejection decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline ]
“If it were not for Nebraska and all the work people did, the pipeline would be built by now,” State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said Friday night at Lincoln’s Haymarket, where opponents celebrated.
The president said Friday it was time for America to bypass more fossil fuel development for the sake of addressing climate change. The rejection came seven years after TransCanada Corp. submitted an application to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast.
Obama suggested he was not swayed by either those who promoted the pipeline as a “silver bullet for the economy” or those who proclaimed that the pipeline represented “the express lane to climate disaster.” Nonetheless, the reasons Secretary of State John Kerry gave for rejecting the pipeline — it wouldn’t lower gas prices or improve the nation’s energy security, and it could potentially have an impact on local communities, water supplies and cultural heritage sites — echoed the points raised by opponents in Nebraska and elsewhere.
TransCanada still holds land easements for most of the route and could reapply for a federal permit under the next administration. Still, the announcement bitterly disappointed industry and labor groups who argued that Keystone XL would be the safest, most technologically advanced pipeline ever built to transport a fuel almost every American relies upon for transportation.
But the company often found the ride rough in Nebraska.
TransCanada first encountered scrutiny in the state in 2007 during the planning stages for its original oil pipeline, which it called simply Keystone. The Nebraska League of Women Voters, concerned because the Keystone route passed close to Seward’s drinking water wells, brought in a national pipeline safety expert to educate landowners and local elected officials.
Still, the first pipeline was built without delay. And by the time Keystone XL was under consideration, TransCanada had little trouble obtaining voluntary easements from landowners in other states along the route. But a minority of the roughly 500 Nebraska landowners held out, and by 2010, political organizer Jane Kleeb stepped in to focus their opposition.
Kleeb led an organization called Bold Nebraska, financed by Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland. Although she said the environmental movement never appealed to her before, she sensed that the Nebraska landowners could rally support for protecting land and water from a foreign corporation with the ability to use eminent domain.
“I’ve always seen Nebraska’s role as putting a face on the fight,” Kleeb said last week.
She recalled talking to political insiders in Washington, D.C., who gave her effort zero chance at success. No one opposes Canadian oil, they told her. After all, approval for the first Keystone pipeline took just two years.
But no major oil pipeline ever was proposed to run through the Sand Hills until Keystone XL. Many Nebraskans, including Mike Johanns, then a Republican U.S. senator, said putting a major oil pipeline through the Sand Hills didn’t make sense. They argued it presented too great of a threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water for people, livestock and crops across vast stretches of the state.
After the special session succeeded in moving the pipeline route, the president rejected the company’s application, in part because of the unsettled issues in Nebraska. But Obama invited the company to reapply.
National green groups aimed to kill the pipeline, hoping they could slow the development of Canada’s oil sands region and keep the oil in the ground. Gradually, many of the Nebraska opponents changed their position from seeking a reroute of Keystone XL to wanting it stopped altogether.
During subsequent State Department hearings, Bold Nebraska members turned out wearing red-and-white pipeline-fighter shirts and armbands. They carved anti-Keystone pumpkins for a display outside the Governor’s Mansion and organized a concert with Neil Young and Willie Nelson on a northeast Nebraska family farm on the pipeline route.
In 2012 the president approved the southern section of the project from Cushing, Oklahoma, to refineries in Texas. That left the 1,179-mile northern section, from western Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, for the State Department to review.
Meanwhile, more national environmental organizations were taking up the pipeline fight. They organized marches in Washington, D.C., and staged demonstrations that led to arrests. Among those in handcuffs were several Nebraskans.
Still, environmental reviews by Nebraska regulators and the State Department showed that the pipeline represented a minimal threat to water resources and it would not significantly worsen global carbon emissions. The analysis also showed that the pipeline would create temporary construction jobs and about 35 permanent positions.
Company officials argued they had science and economics in their favor. Opponents pointed to major spills from pipelines run by other companies in the Kalamazoo River and in Mayflower, Arkansas, as proof that a threat of a potential catastrophe was real.
Presidential approval still seemed likely.
Then, in 2014, three Nebraska landowners won a lawsuit challenging a state law used to approve the pipeline’s second route. The case was appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Once again, the State Department delayed its review to wait for the court’s decision.
The legal fights waged by landowners in Nebraska impressed national groups, said Lindsey Allen, director of the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based group that trained pipeline opponents on how to engage in civil disobedience.
“It was huge,” she said. “It really was the opposition in Texas and Nebraska that inspired much of the rest of the country that this could be a catalyzing issue.”
In turn, Kleeb said, the national groups could tap into larger memberships while offering scientific and strategic expertise that was beyond a small group like Bold Nebraska.
Although the Supreme Court did not ultimately strike down the routing law, the landowners filed new lawsuits earlier this year. The questions about the pipeline route would continue, potentially for years to come.
On Friday, as she listened to the president reject the pipeline, Kleeb said she felt proud that a group of Nebraska farmers, ranchers and activists won a fight they were supposed to lose.