How Nebraska’s farm towns became part of U.S. climate change strategy
by Allen Best
To call Newport, Neb., a small town inflates its size. Located on the edge of the sparsely populated Sand Hills, the hamlet has just 70 people. Like nearly all of Nebraska’s rural areas, it has been shedding residents.
But Newport will have an influence on upcoming climate negotiations in Paris. Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline first arose at Newport and other itty-bitty places on the Great Plains. Ranch and farm owners became riled up by what they considered bullying tactics by the proponent, Calgary-based TransCanada. Their opposition caught the attention of national environmental groups and climate-change activists such as Bill McKibben, who in turn made the Keystone a centerpiece of their campaigns against fossil fuels.
President Barack Obama last week said that opponents had overstated the effect of the pipeline in causing increased greenhouse gas emissions, but nonetheless affirmed the veto by Secretary of State John Kerry. At issue, he said, was U.S. credibility when he meets other world leaders in Paris. Approving Keystone XL, he said, “would have undercut that global leadership.”
As with the civil rights movement 50 years before, the Keystone story testifies to the power of grassroots protest. Determined, local activists—when amplified—can make a difference. The Keystone story, however, had unlikely partners.
Rural Nebraska bleeds conservative red. In Rock County, where Newport is located, Obama got only 18 percent of the votes in 2008. Four years later, he got only 13 percent. People were furious about Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act. They don’t like mandates. They don’t think Koch is a four-letter word.
More unpopular than Obama, though, were the land agents for TransCanada who had begun banging on ranch-house doors. The company already had pipeline in eastern Nebraska to export diluted bitumen from the tar-like sands of northern Alberta to U.S. refineries. This time, the company chose a more direct route that nicked the corner of the state’s iconic Sand Hills. The Ogallala Aquifer lies below the Sand Hills, and during spring, rises to the surface. This pipeline route didn’t set well with ranchers and farmers. As I learned during a reporting trip there for a magazine several years ago, they’re fiercely protective of their land and water.
One day in 2009, Lynda Buoy, who has a small ranch in the Sand Hills, went to Newport to talk about this with several ranch women over coffee at Sunny’s Café. The women she met, ranging from their 30s to their 70s, didn’t know what to do. They had received letters from TransCanada offering terms for easements but also a warning: accept this offer or else their property would be condemned. “They were devastated that this could happen in America,” says Buoy. Only later did they learn that TransCanada had no such authority.
Meetings in small towns drew large crowds. Environmental groups got involved. Climate change was not yet at the forefront of their messaging. Long-time Sierra Club representative Ken Winston urged landowners to stand their constitutional grounds against a foreign corporation. Those messages resonated with conservatives who listened to Mike Huckabee’s radio program by day and watched Fox News at night.
The National Farmers Union passed a resolution in 2010 crafted with the aid of local representative Graham Christensen. The National Wildlife Federation sponsored trips by locals to testify in Washington D.C. Money began flowing downward from national groups. If driven by different motives, big-green environmental organizations and grassroots activists had a common goal.
Later, in 2013, another unlikely pairing called the Cowboy-Indian Alliance was forged, partnering the landowners with the indigenous Ponca, Pawnee, and Sioux along with other tribes in Canada.
Landowners in Nebraska did not kill the Keystone XL pipeline, but they created the situation that allowed Secretary of State John Kerry to veto the permit. It’s like a car going by at 60 mph, says John K. Hansen, the president of Nebraska Farmers Union. At that speed, you might notice that it’s red or an SUV, but not much more. Only when the car stops can you see the wheel-well rust or the front-fender dent. Ranchers and farmers slowed this speeding car for closer inspection.
The civil rights movement has certain parallels. Fifty years ago this past August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. It did so only after Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, several months before. U.S. Congressman John Lewis, then a student activist from Georgia, was among the victims that day. Martin Luther King Jr. later led marchers successfully to the state capitol in Montgomery. But King and the student activists arrived only after the local residents had shown their pluck, insisting on their right as Americans to vote. Changes happen from the grassroots.
Last week, shortly after Obama’s announcement, environmental leaders proudly noted that this was the first defeat of major fossil fuel infrastructure and suggested further efforts to keep carbon in the ground.
That’s still not a strong message in Nebraska. “I can guarantee you that none of these cowboys believe in climate change,” said Buoy last weekend from her home in the Sand Hills. “They know there’s something weird with the weather, but they don’t think it’s climate change.”
But Christensen, the former Farmers Union representative, very much has climate change in mind. He has returned to the farm north of Omaha that has been in his family since 1867. Now, he wants to push the energy revolution from the grassroots. Farmers, he says, need to be energy generators, harnessing the power of wind and other renewable resources. Working at the grassroots, he’s trying to help them.
Allen Best originally reported on the pipeline controversy in 2012 for Planning, a magazine of the American Planning Association.