Keystone XL debate: how pipeline politics divide Nebraska

The people are angry, but the politicians aren’t worried. Dave Weaver/Reuters

In Nebraska, the intensity of the Keystone XL debate is second only to that over the chance that the Nebraska Cornhuskers will win the Big Ten football championship. Raging for several years now, controversy over the pipeline has bounced from the governor to the legislature, the state Supreme Court and back again, with the final decision going to President Obama who has not yet announced a decision. In the end, all the Nebraska politics and posturing may be for nothing.

Proposed in September 2008, the pipeline would start in Alberta, Canada, enter the United States in Montana and link with an existing pipeline at Steele City, Nebraska. It would carry 830,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen (a semisolid petroleum product combined with natural gas) across 275 miles of Nebraska farm and ranch land, traversing more than 500 private properties. The bitumen’ destination is the refineries of the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast, where it will be transformed into refined products to meet US demand.

Where the pipe will run. RNGS Reuters

Strange bedfellows

The politics of Nebraska, a deep red state, have been temporally scrambled by the unusual coalitions formed to support or oppose the pipeline. It is not a shock that the business community, Republican Governor Dave Heineman, and a majority of the legislature — officially nonpartisan but mostly Republican — have teamed up in support. What is surprising is the addition of some labor unions to this mix. Meanwhile, environmentalists and Democratic activists have joined with typically more conservative farmers and ranchers to oppose the pipeline.

This opposition, led by Nebraska political activist Jane Kleeb, relies on a populist approach that mixes reasonable concerns, such as possible pollution of the Ogallala aquifer, alongside disregard of landowner concerns, with bombastic arguments that are a stretch at best. For example, at a public meeting last winter, a feedlot owner asked the crowd what they thought he should do with 10,000 dead cows, which he apparently believes could result from constructing the pipeline next to his property. This even though Nebraska already has 15,000 miles of hazardous materials pipeline under the aquifer, including two delivering diluted bitumen from Canada.

Proponents believe the pipeline will create jobs and improve American energy security by easing the flow of oil from a friendly neighbor. They note that the Alberta deposits have an estimated 170 billion barrels of oil, enough to satisfy US demand for at least 30 years.

All quiet at the Nebraska State Capitol.

The issue now finds itself in the Nebraska Supreme Court, where Justices recently heard arguments on the constitutionality of the pipeline. The bill, passed in 2012, gave the governor, rather than the Public Service Commission, authority to approve the pipeline. Pipeline proponents applaud this, while opponents believe the commission has jurisdiction and the law is improper.

Impact at the ballot box

Those on both sides of the pipeline battle have gone toe to toe for several years. For all the acrimony, though, the issue is having little impact on politics.

Political positions in the top two state races, both open seats, break along predictable lines, with the Republican candidates for Governor (Pete Ricketts) and US senator (Ben Sasse) supporting the pipeline and the Democrats (Chuck Hassebrook and Dave Domina) opposed.

In the campaign for the house seat that represents Omaha, located far from the pipeline route, both candidates support construction, as do a majority of Omahans. And just last spring, 29 of the 49 members of the Nebraska Legislature, including a mix of Democrats and Republican, signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry stating, “We support the project and urge approval of the pending permit application for an international border crossing for the pipeline.”

So while the coalitions of both sides on the issue have been interesting and sometimes unusual, the impact on key elections is negligible.

Heineman’s support of Keystone isn’t keeping Obama up at night. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

And will there be any impact on President Obama, who has the final say? Probably not. He is a lame duck who will shortly enter his final two years in office. Nebraska is a small, red state where the president has a low approval rating, making it less likely he will be concerned about opposition. In Omaha, the only part of the state where he and his fellow Democrats enjoy any substantial support, pipeline construction is relatively popular.

After all is said and done, the Nebraska fight over the Keystone Pipeline will have been thought provoking, but it will have little long-term impact on Nebraska politics. It will continue on for a while after a final decision, bringing lawsuits over construction, land prices, and the like. But in the end, the politicians, corporations, unions, non-profits, trade associations, and lobbyists will move on, prepared to fight another day for another cause.