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Demonstrators for the Keystone XL pipeline, right, and a demonstrator against the pipeline meet outside Pershing Auditorium near the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. (Nati Harnik/Nati Harnik/Associated Press)
Demonstrators for the Keystone XL pipeline, right, and a demonstrator against the pipeline meet outside Pershing Auditorium near the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. (Nati Harnik/Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Battlefield Nebraska: A pipeline plan stirs emotions Add to ...

“Every so often, something comes up that is startling in the sense of its dangers, and triggers our need to rise up as a people,” says Dick Holland, a 90-year-old Omaha benefactor and early investor with Warren Buffett who has been among the key financial backers of Nebraska’s anti-Keystone XL movement.

“This is one of them.”

Pipelines get a bad rep

In the summer of 2009, crews worked their way down the eastern flank of Nebraska, digging trench and laying pipe. They were building the original Keystone pipeline, which connects Canada’s oil sands to refineries in southern Illinois. It was, as industrial projects, go, a quiet one. Its route crossed part of the Ogallala aquifer, but opponents raised barely a whisper. Most Americans – and most Nebraskans – didn’t even know a pipeline was being built.

What changed? Why is Keystone XL so different from the original Keystone?

After all, very little time has passed between the two pipelines. Yet in those months, oil leaked across the Gulf of Mexico. Pipeline ruptures fouled the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and the Yellowstone River in Montana. Pipeline risk was no longer an abstract concept. The stage was set for the debate over Keystone XL to take on a very different tenor. All it needed was for someone to pick up a megaphone.

As it happened, she was sitting in a room in York, Neb., in May of 2010, listening to landowners complain about their treatment at the hands of TransCanada. Jane Kleeb, a left-leaning activist, had been looking for an issue to sink her teeth into. After a friend invited her to York, “I came home and was like, I’ve got to start working on this issue, clearly,” Ms. Kleeb says. She and other activists who were at the meetings decided to band together.

Their coalition, many believe, was pivotal in dramatically shifting the debate about Keystone XL. The discussion, from that point forward, would not be quiet. And it would soon leap far beyond Nebraska.

Over the following months, Ms. Kleeb and others drove all over the state, delivering some 40 “education forums” at churches and campuses. They talked about whooping cranes and sandhill cranes. They talked about landowner rights. They talked about oil sands and greenhouse gases.

And they talked about water, and the 100 kilometres of the Keystone XL pipeline that ran across the Sandhills, which the original Keystone line doesn’t touch. The Sandhills cover roughly a quarter of Nebraska. They are a region of rolling dunes covered in a thin layer of grasses that are used to graze cattle. Many Nebraskans trace their roots to the area, which was settled by pioneers. The Sandhills also play a critical role for the Ogallala: They are a recharge point for the aquifer, filtering rain through to the ground below. In some areas the sand is so thin that the aquifer’s waters surge above surface, in low-lying pools that remain wet in even the driest conditions.

Concern over the Sandhills and the aquifer made unlikely bedfellows. Ms. Kleeb’s husband, Scott, lost a U.S. Senate election bid to Mike Johanns, a Republican and former Nebraska governor. Now they are together pressing against Keystone XL.

“If Colorado has the Rocky Mountains and Florida has the ocean, we have the Sandhills,” Sen. Johanns said in an interview.

“I don’t know who led them to believe that a route through the aquifer and Sandhills was going to be an acceptable route. But my goodness, have they stirred up a hornet’s nest for no good reason. “I think they got bad advice.”

The opposition builds

Yet for all the concern about the Ogallala, it’s clear that critics see far more at stake. For many, the Keystone XL battle has taken on shades of a moral mission, to halt both a company and an industry – the oil sands – that they see as evil. Ms. Kleeb compares TransCanada to Big Tobacco. “Instead of selling the benefits of tobacco, they’re selling the benefits of oil – and not being honest with people about the risks and the dangers. All of the money. All of the lobbyists. It’s all the same.”

Tom Genung, another Nebraska opponent, sees Keystone XL “as a fuse to this big bomb in Alberta.”

Another belief, widely held: Oil is simply a front. Keystone XL, some argue, is a surreptitious attempt to lay pipe that can one day be used to steal away Ogallala waters.

Keystone XL proponents point out that the oil sands produce merely a fraction of U.S. coal emissions. And Gulf refineries are scrambling to replace dwindling volumes from Mexico and Venezuela. Many opponents believe Keystone XL is ultimately an export pipeline; that the end products will be shipped overseas to fuel Chinese, rather than American, cars. TransCanada calls those arguments nonsensical.

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