Keystone XL pipeline debate rages on

Windmills are seen erected near Interstate 80. Energy and environmental issues are a hot topic in Nebraska this summer, as a debate about a proposed Canadian oil pipeline storms on.

Story and photo illustration by Jonathon Augustine

The tension between income-minded businesses and environment-minded members of the public continues in Nebraska.

It’s a rivalry that has persisted for generations and one that has recently found an arena for battle in this state.

The issue at hand is the proposed construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline–a project spearheaded by Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada Corporation. The pipeline, as proposed, would cross the Nebraska-South Dakota border in Keya Paha county, traverse southeast and exit the state at the Kansas-Nebraska border in Jefferson County. It would occupy portions of the Nebraska Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer and transfer extracted tar sands oil from Alberta’s bituminous sand fields to refineries in the southern United States.

The proposed route has some Nebraskans raising their voices in opposition, especially in the wake of a recent oil leak from an Exxon Mobil pipeline into the Yellowstone River in Montana. That leak has produced disturbing reports and photographs of dramatic landscapes blemished by the spill.

Ben Gotschall, a fourth generation cattle rancher from Holt County, Nebraska, says his family’s land is situated in the Sandhills and would be affected by the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction. He believes the Sandhills should be off limits to projects such as this.

“As someone who has witnessed how fragile the Sandhills are firsthand, it just seems ridiculous to cut a huge trench through the Sandhills,” Gotschall said. “And to have nothing between the aquifer and the pipeline but sand–and in some cases the pipeline being in the aquifer itself–it’s just aggravatingly ridiculous that they would even consider it.”

Gotschall has reached out and contributed to Bold Nebraska–an organization that has led the pipeline’s opposition movement in Nebraska. The group has expressed concerns that the particular type of oil the Keystone XL pipeline would be moving is the most environmentally destructive source of petroleum.

Jane Kleeb is the executive director of Bold Nebraska. She says there are more sensible ways for the United States to grow its energy supply.

“There are cleaner sources of fuel and oil and energy that we can be relying on,” Kleeb said. “If we are worried about dependency on foreign oil–especially that from the Middle East–and if we’re worried about jobs, then we would be building up American-made energy that’s efficient that we know works.”

Kleeb said that would mean creating infrastructure in places like Nebraska for wind and other alternative sources of fuel that are not as environmentally harmful as tar sands oil.

“We are definitely playing Russian roulette with our land and water right now,” Kleeb said.

Other residents, like Senator Jim Smith of Papillion, are ready for the pipeline to be in the ground and operational.

Smith represents Nebraska’s 14th district and owns a small business. He has been a part of the electric utility industry for 25 years and said it is important for his constituents to understand that his bias leans towards having a strong economy and helping businesses like his be able to survive and grow through the country’s current state of affairs.

“I sit on the natural resources committee and consider myself a pragmatic environmentalist,” Smith said. “I do believe that we need to support the environment. There is indeed a balance that needs to be struck.”

He said that he feels a responsible plan has been in place since before he joined the Unicameral in 2011 and now is not the time to make the argument that there should be no construction. Smith said Nebraska is ready to move forward and construct and operate the pipeline to be as responsible as possible to environmental concerns.

“[The pipeline] creates jobs for Nebraskans, it creates revenue in our state coffers, it provides energy independence and price relief at the pump. That’s why I support it.”

That’s not enough to please Gotschall, who says the economic benefits that may come of the project are not worth the inherent risk of oil traveling through groundwater, nor are they worth the alteration of pristine, fragile land.

“The Sandhills are a beautiful place and should be protected from this giant scar.”

He expressed disappointment in the state legislature and feels that legitimate environmental concerns by Nebraska residents have not been properly addressed.

Kleeb agreed. She said any other issue given the amount of attention from Nebraskans that the Keystone XL pipeline debate has attracted would have elicited a greater response from their representatives in the Unicameral’s 2011 session.

Smith feels that the debate was satisfied with the passage of LB 629, a bill introduced by Senator Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids and crafted to create a compromise that would allow the pipeline project to move forward while protecting the best interest of Nebraskans.

The bill, which Nebraska lawmakers voted 47-0 to advance from general file on May 19, requires entities that harbor oil pipelines in Nebraska to be financially responsible for reclamation costs that occur due to construction, operation and management of their infrastructure. In a column on the state legislature’s website dated May 23, 2011, Sullivan writes that the bill is a first step in catching Nebraska up on state-issued oil pipeline regulations.

According to Smith, the passage of the bill “illustrated great compromise” between TransCanada and special interest groups worried about the environment.

It is little more than money-minded legislation that misses the point in the eyes of Gotschall. His suggestion is that the best way to avoid a devastating environmental disaster in the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer is to keep oil out of it, and that a prudent steward of land and water resources would not consider constructing a pipeline where the Keystone XL pipeline is proposed to be.

“It’s frustrating,” Gotschall said, “The sheer stupidity of it is hard to articulate.”

Before the end of the year, the U.S. Department of State is expected to decide whether or not they will allow TransCanada to build the pipeline as proposed, but the debate–and the range of emotions fostered by opposing sides–are certain to last far beyond 2011.

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