Nebraska has been a hotbed of resistance to a 5½-year-long effort to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline across America, but most Nebraskans now seem to support the project.
Polls show a majority of Nebraskans back the effort and two-thirds of Nebraska lawmakers signed a letter last month in support of the project, which would provide a link between western Canada's oil supplies and the Gulf Coast.
But that's quite a change for the Cornhusker State.
It was Nebraska that prompted the U.S. State Department to delay a decision in 2011 on a federal permit for Keystone XL. Opponents convinced Nebraska's nonpartisan lawmakers and the governor to convene a special session to push TransCanada to reroute the pipeline around the ecologically sensitive Sandhills.
It was Nebraska that has hosted U.S. State Department hearings on the proposed pipeline.
And it was Nebraska again that prompted the Obama administration to recently delay action on a federal permit after a lawsuit by pipeline opponents got a pipeline siting-law struck down.
The judge's decision is being appealed by the state. In the meantime, opponents say there is no legal Keystone XL route through Nebraska.
All of which will continue to delay a final decision on this project as the battle between environmentalists, labor unions, politicians, and landowners approaches six years.
Despite Nebraska pipeline fighters' success in pushing the pipeline issue onto the national stage with rallies and White House protests, Nebraskans have expressed support for the pipeline in polls, including a 2012 Public Policy Polling survey that found bipartisan support among 60 percent of voters surveyed. Support for the project was unchanged a few months later in an Omaha World-Herald poll.
That's only slightly less support for the project than polls have found nationwide. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found 65 percent of Americans support Keystone XL. And in March, more than two-thirds of Nebraska's lawmakers — 34 of 49 — signed a letter urging the feds to approve the project.
The bipartisan support for Keystone XL from lawmakers was surprising — 25 Republicans and nine Democrats signed, including prominent Nebraska Democrats like state Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the state Appropriations committee, and state Sens. Steve Lathrop and Jeremy Nordquist.
The grass-roots group that has led opposition to the project, Bold Nebraska, tried to gather signatures for an alternative letter urging rejection, but found only three Democrats willing to sign it.
Given that Nebraska has been ground zero for resistance to Keystone, what gives?
"I think it's just reflective of the broad support that Nebraskans have shown for the pipeline," Nordquist said of the letter. He's supported the project since lawmakers passed pipeline-siting legislation in 2011 and TransCanada revised its route to avoid the Sandhills.
"Once those issues were addressed I think most Nebraskans see this as a common-sense project that should move forward," he said.
Nordquist supports an "all of the above" approach to energy — including renewables — and around the time signatures were being gathered for the letter, "Russia was starting to mess around in Ukraine," bolstering the need for a "secure energy portfolio," he said.
TransCanada says it has nailed down easement agreements with landowners in five of the six states the pipeline would traverse — with the remaining holdouts all in Nebraska. TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said 79 percent of 515 Nebraska landowners in the pipeline path have signed easements, leaving about 100 holdouts.
TransCanada recently gave those holdouts until mid-May to accept their easement offers — some as high as $250,000 — or have them taken off the table.
Howard said there are some "vocal opponents" to the pipeline, but they don't represent the majority of landowners along the route, or Nebraskans as a whole.
"While we recognize that not everyone will support this pipeline, our land team works very hard to build good relationships with landowners and that is what they are doing in Nebraska every day," he said.
He said once TransCanada revised its Nebraska route, public support for the pipeline shifted.
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said there's a core of Nebraskans who strongly oppose the pipeline, some of whom are on the proposed route. Others are worried about the environment, climate change, and the threat of oil spills contaminating groundwater.
Do most Nebraskans favor the project? Depends on how you frame the question, Hansen said. Most people he runs into are "overwhelmingly sympathetic" to landowners' concerns, he said, and want them to be treated fairly, have due process and get liability issues clarified.
TransCanada used local land agents to secure easements and was more flexible about routing before building the Keystone One pipeline that traverses eastern Nebraska, but took a different tact on Keystone XL.
This time around, the company created a public relations mess with hardball tactics like flying a helicopter over the cattle herd of one holdout landowner, spooking the cows into running through a fence, Hansen said. Or calling a widow a dozen times a day and telling her if she didn't sign the easement, her land would be condemned and she'd get nothing — a claim which wasn't true.
"It's been a completely different modus operandi," Hansen said. "Their tactics were awful."
Despite six-figure easement offers, those tactics have only hardened the resolve of some landowners who will never let the pipeline be built on their land — unless they're in jail, he said.
"One landowner asked why he would want to go into business with someone for 50 years who tries to get them [to sign] by browbeating, bullying, and lying," Hansen said.
Hansen was surprised to see so many lawmakers sign the Keystone XL letter not long after a judge threw out the pipeline-siting law they hastily passed in the waning hours of the 2012 session. They should have been "red-faced" for not doing their jobs rather than signing a letter of support, he said.
Grass-roots opposition to Keystone XL has been harnessed, organized, and led by Bold Nebraska, whose executive director, Jane Kleeb, said she hasn't seen a poll showing most Nebraskans support the pipeline "if it still crosses the Sandhills and aquifer."
The pipeline would still cross the massive, hard-to-avoid Ogallala Aquifer, and while TransCanada revised its route to avoid the Sandhills, opponents say the route still goes through light, sandy, porous soils just a few feet above water.
"Given that it does, folks are still opposed to it," Kleeb said via email. "It's troubling that TransCanada and their front groups pretend the route has been changed to avoid these resources. Opposition comes from those who see beyond TransCanada's million-dollar ad campaign and lobbying of our elected officials."
Nordquist disagrees, saying while Bold Nebraska has done a good job of voicing its concerns, "I think that a majority of Nebraskans are behind it and that's why a great majority of the lawmakers signed it."
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