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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

Next to a sun-stained red flag that marks the planned route of the Keystone XL pipeline, Leon Weichman kneels on his Nebraska hay field. Moisture spots his jeans. It has barely rained in 30 days in this arid part of the central U.S., yet the grasses are thick and green. The soil is black and damp.

This field is naturally irrigated by the subterranean reaches of a vast underground formation called the Ogallala Aquifer that underlies the heart of America. It is half the size of British Columbia and filled with freshwater.

Mr. Weichman says he has slept uneasily for three years, knowing that the red flag portends a time when up to 830,000 barrels of oil could course through his field each day.

"If we couldn't use this water, this area would just be vacated." Mr. Weichman says. "We couldn't raise livestock here. We couldn't use crops here. It would just be done."

Now the Ogallala has inspired a fierce battle over oil, turning Keystone XL into a symbolic dividing line for opponents and supporters of Canada's oil sands. The red flags marking the route have come to delineate an increasingly bitter fight between those who tout the economic and strategic benefits of a giant resource of North American crude and those who see the oil sands as an unacceptable environmental threat.

To critics, Keystone XL is not just a risk to Nebraska's water treasure. It represents the rapid growth in Alberta's oil sands and the harmful greenhouse gas emissions the industry is creating.

Opponents are mobilizing around the goal of "blocking the expansion of this incredibly dangerous carbon bomb," says Bill McKibben, a high-profile climate campaigner who has helped organize White House protests against Keystone XL. The pipeline project has raised awareness of the Alberta oil sands – "just how much carbon there was up there, and that heavily exploiting the tar sands would be 'game over' for the climate."

For supporters, the pipeline represents a chance for the U.S. to secure needed oil supply from a friendly source. And the U.S. labour and business community sees Keystone XL as a critical indicator of the country's ability to shake off a prolonged period of economic malaise and high unemployment.

"If we can't get this built, we're not going to get anything built," Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Energy Institute, told a Calgary audience last week. "This is a big litmus test."

That test is nearing resolution. Between now and year's end, the U.S. State Department will decide whether Keystone XL is in the American national interest. Some time in December, it expects to either approve or deny a presidential permit for the pipeline.

In that decision lies major consequences for Canada. Keystone XL is a critical link for shipments between the oil sands and the enormous refining complex in the U.S. Gulf Coast. The pipeline stands to open a spigot out of the oil sands that will clear the way for nearly a decade of growth, worth tens of billions of dollars to Canada's economy. The project promises to help sustain tens of thousands of jobs north of the border in an industry generating vast sums of government tax and royalty revenue.

The pipeline has backing in the highest levels of the Canadian industry and politics. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Keystone XL a "no-brainer" for the U.S.

But in Nebraska, where a pitched battle over the pipeline is being fought among the endless fields of irrigated corn, it's no such thing. The Husker state has become Battlefield Nebraska. It's a place where a well-organized movement has caught fire to defeat the pipeline, or alter its route and potentially prolong its already-lengthy approval period by years.

And for all the attention brought to the issue by protesting actresses arrested outside of the White House, it is Nebraska that now stands a chance at charring a key plank in Canada's oil sands growth platform.

The international implications of the state's growing insurrection are clearly evident to the pipeline's supporters, who have struggled to beat it back. This week, Canada's Ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, travelled to Lincoln, Neb., to personally meet with Governor Dave Heineman. The Canadian Consul-General in Minneapolis, who covers Nebraska, has visited the state a half dozen times in the past year. TransCanada chief executive officer Russ Girling has personally met, on multiple occasions, Gov. Heineman and the state's U.S. senators. TransCanada has plastered the state with advertising, including a sponsorship of its revered Huskers college football team.

In a measure of the discord sweeping Nebraska, that advertising was quickly rejected after fans hollered their disapproval.

"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.

In the course of three years of study, the U.S. State Department has closely scrutinized a vast number of potential environmental impacts from the Keystone XL line. It published its findings in a report that spans eight volumes and thousands of pages. Its conclusion was direct: "There would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed Project corridor."

Keystone XL, it found, "would have a degree of safety greater than any typically constructed domestic oil pipeline system under current regulations." In the Ogallala – and the Sandhills specifically – "impacts to shallow groundwater from a spill ... would affect a limited area of the aquifer around the spill site."

The pipeline industry itself has been left scratching its head at the Keystone XL opposition.

"They build pipelines over in Saudi Arabia in the desert. ... The Sandhills is no different from building through any hills," says Tom White, who is the president of Price Gregory International, which built both the first Keystone line through Nebraska and Rockies Express, a new natural gas pipeline that runs through the Sandhills. "So we've got experience, and we've also got experience where the water table is high."

He dismisses the protesters as grasping at contrived arguments. "If you want to be Chicken Little, there's concern on everything you do," Mr. White says.

There's a way to build Keystone XL with far less opposition. Move the pipe's route. Many support the idea of shifting it roughly 100 kilometres to the east, where it can swing down the side of the state alongside the already-built Keystone pipe. Such is the request of Nebraska Gov. Heineman, Sen. Johanns, Mr. Holland, Mr. Weichman and numerous others.

It is a prospect that TransCanada refuses, at least officially, to consider.

"From TransCanada's point of view, to entertain the thought of answering the question is to not be solid in your position," says spokesman James Millar. The chosen route "is the best route. It is the route with the least amount of environmental impact. Case closed."

Mr. Millar points to the State Department's review of roughly a dozen alternative routes, which included options to skip the Sandhills and join the previous Keystone path. Doing so, State found, could be costly enough to kill the pipeline. It would also trigger new environmental review, after an already arduous three years of scrutiny. And it may not help the environment: That route would disturb more land, cross more rivers and pass over as much sensitive aquifer.

"This is real evidence. This isn't hype. This isn't speculation. These are facts. So the facts say [the original route is]the correct route," says Robert Jones, TransCanada's vice-president of Keystone pipelines.

In the next few months, snow will descend upon Mr. Weichman's field. By next year, the massive, 36-inch-wide Keystone XL could be buried in his land. He has already signed the documents allowing TransCanada to do its work – and accepted initial payment. TransCanada pays for obtaining an easement and to compensate for impacts, and Mr. Weichman decided he could not on his own muster enough legal power to block the company or the pipeline.

But he and others continue to fight. If TransCanada won't move the pipe on its own, they hope they can force it. With time running down, they are now turning to political and legal means.

The international debate about Keystone XL could, if they are successful, be decided in a Nebraska courtroom or legislative chamber.

Ken Haar, a state senator, has called for a special legislative session this fall. He wants to introduce a bill that would give the state power over oil pipelines, including their route. To succeed, he must gain the support of 25 other senators – and that remains far from certain. But Mr. Holland, the wealthy benefactor, has thrown his financial support behind the effort. He is convinced the votes will materialize.

And if that fails, activists have another plan: a ballot initiative. They hope to force a vote, in hopes of compelling the state to enact such legislation. Ms. Kleeb's polling suggests they can pull it off. TransCanada dismisses the polling as biased.

Stopping or slowing the pipeline will not be easy. Indeed, even Keystone XL opponents expect the State Department to gives its blessing – and the special legislative session has been opposed by Nebraska's Governor, making that an uncertain path.

Yet even Keystone XL's staunchest supporters admit to concern. If Nebraska "causes enough disturbance to raise the question of is the route valid, then I think we're looking at a two- or three-year delay, minimum," says Howard Hawks, chairman of Omaha-based Tenaska Energy, a power development and energy marketing company.

"And potentially the pipeline doesn't get built."