The fight against the Keystone pipeline is focused this week on a bunch of farmers in Nebraska whose lawsuit thus far has won a round in state court, delayed a decision by President Barack Obama on allowing the line to cross the U.S.-Canada border, and apparently has TransCanada, the company that owns the pipeline, worried.
In the past four years, landowners, indigenous people, climate-change scientists, and environmentalists from Canada to South Texas have battled the tar sands expansion. Despite those protests, the southern leg of the pipeline was completed and is now in operation.
But in Nebraska, the landowners’ suit against TransCanada’s use of eminent domain could cause a rerouting of another section of the line, forcing a delay and giving opponents in both Canada and this country more time to make their case that tar sands mining and transportation could spell environmental disaster with no major economic benefit.
In late February a district court in Lancaster, Neb., declared unconstitutional a 2012 state law allowing TransCanada to use eminent domain to seize private land. The company immediately appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
If that court upholds the lower court ruling, TransCanada could no longer take by force the land it needs for easements. Buying the land on the market could take a long time if it can be done at all, plus time for a new environmental impact report.
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling called Obama’s April 18 decision inexplicable. “We are extremely disappointed and frustrated with yet another delay,” Girling said in a press release.
His frustration is understandable, since opposition keeps spreading. A few days ago, 10 Nobel Laureates, including former President Jimmy Carter and retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, sent a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry urging them to deny permission for the pipeline on moral grounds. This week, hundreds of Native Americans will join ranchers and farmers in Washington, D.C., for protests.
TransCanada has been aggressively trying to counter those sentiments. Shortly after the Nebraska ruling, the giant energy company unleashed a barrage of TV and radio ads touting the pipeline’s allegedly vital role in U.S. national security, energy independence, and economic recovery.
“TransCanada is putting a lot of pressure on landowners … to sell them easements,” said Jane Kleeb, a founder of boldnebraska.org. “But there are a lot of farmers out here who don’t want it, no matter how much money is being offered.”
She said offers that started at $15,000 for an easement have jumped to nearly $200,000.
“Oh, there’s plenty of pressure on us,” said Art Tanderup, a farmer whose family has been working the same land for more than 100 years. “They’re offering a lot of money for the easements they need. But I’ve been a teacher and a farmer all my life, and I’m not used to being rich, so we’ll get by without the bonus money TransCanada is offering.”
Shannon Graves’ husband’s family has lived in the same home for 130 years. She also said that the money, while tempting, won’t change her mind.
“Look at what happened in Mayflower, Arkansas, with that tar sands leak. Look at the Kalamazoo River leak,” she said. “If that happened here, it would ruin the house. And five generations have grown up here, so it’s personal for us.”
In Michigan, a tar sands spill in July 2010 sent nearly a million gallons of diluted bitumen — tar sands infused with benzene and other gases to make it light enough to be moved through a pipeline — into Talmadge Creek and from there into the Kalamazoo River, poisoning a 40-mile stretch. Some sections are still not cleaned up.
In Mayflower, Ark., a pipe rupture in March 2013 sent as much as 500,000 gallons of tar sands bitumen through a section of town, forcing evacuations. Many homes remain uninhabitable.
Only about 115 landowners are holding out, but Kleeb said that about half the state’s population opposes the pipeline.
“We’ve got people all over the state energized,” she said. “Some are focused on the climate change that development of the tar sands will cause; some are worried about the water. A lot of people just don’t think it’s right to let a foreign company take our land for their profit.”
Kleeb and others in her group have been speaking about the tar sands and the pipeline since 2010. “We’ve held hundreds of meetings with local people, and we give them the real information about the risks of tar sands and how it’s different from conventional oil,” she said, “but it’s still an uphill battle when you’re fighting TransCanada, which spent over a million dollars lobbying our state representatives in the last year and millions more on advertising.”
“Everyone has their own issues with the pipeline,” said Jenni Harrington, whose family has been farming the same acreage in Nebraska for more than a century. “For us, the big concern is water. We have incredible farming here because of our water supply, and the risk to the Ogallala aquifer is enormous. Some people have irrigation wells in the pipeline path. If there is any failure in that pipeline that wound up going into an irrigation well, that would be a direct line to the aquifer.”
Faith Spotted Eagle, a member of the Ihanktonwan (pronounced Yankton) Dakota-Nakota Sioux, said that thousands of Native Americans see waterway pollution a major reason to oppose the Keystone. “So many bands live directly over the Ogallala aquifer and will be devastated if the tar sands gets into that,” she said.
Spotted Eagle also said the pipeline will pass through thousands of Native American burial sites and sacred places. She noted that the two treaties from the 1800s “called for [protection of] both the reservation and a larger circle of land around that in which we could do our hunting and other things.” The pipeline, would go through the larger treaty area. “The treaty is still in effect. We want it upheld.”
She plans to be part of the protest in Washington, D.C. this week.
“We’re not backing down on this one,” she said. “This is a unifying event … . When we saw the devastation to our tribal relatives in Canada due to the tar sands development, it unified us. And we are unifying with white people as well because of the issue of the Ogallala aquifer.”
TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata told Fort Worth Weekly, “We have dealt with many issues related to this project in the past and are confident we can overcome this latest hurdle.”
Kleeb said there is a lot of anger in Nebraska. “These farmers never imagined their livelihoods could be threatened by a pipeline. But there is hope as well, hope that we [can] stop this corporation from buying off politicians for a project that will threaten everything we have,” she said. “This is an issue that has brought out the ‘no more’ in a wide range of people.”
“We don’t like being turned into an alleyway for TransCanada to move their tar sands to the Texas coast to ship it overseas,” said Graves. “And we … don’t like TransCanada pulling eminent domain on landowners, claiming it’s for the greater good.”
A Nebraska Supreme Court decision could take several months.
“That just gives us more time to educate people,” said Kleeb.