Sunday, May 18, 2014

Newcomer (woman!) rallies Nebraskans to oppose Keystone XL

I've written quite a lot about the Keystone XL pipeline in the past few years, and this story in today's New York Times Magazine invites me to write about it again. This story is "Jane Kleeb v. the Keystone Pipeline," and in it Saul Elbein reports on the efforts of Ms. Kleeb to rally fellow Nebraskans to prevent the now infamous pipeline from snaking through Nebraska, across 275 miles and through (well, below) 515 private properties.  Elbein gives Kleeb plenty of credit for stopping the pipeline--or at least getting its route changed--starting with her attendance at a U.S. State Department Hearing on the Keystone XL.  That was in 2010 in York, Nebraska.  Elbein summarizes:
But what has kept the pipeline out of the ground so far, more than anything, has been Kleeb’s ability to convince mostly­ conservative farmers and ranchers that they are the ones being asked to bear all the risk of Canada’s energy expansion. If something goes wrong, she says, they’re the ones who are going to suffer. Kleeb didn’t need to persuade all of the people in the room to be angry — many of the state’s landowners are plenty wary of what they see as the pipeline’s risks — but she has organized them to take on Trans­Canada and more or less their state’s entire political power structure. 
Kleeb describes her résponse to what she heard from farmers and ranchers at the York meeting (several of whom are quoted in Elbein's story):
All I could think about in that room was how they reminded me of [her husband] Scott’s family, the folks I fell in love with. Farmers and ranchers don’t think politically. I felt like I had to help. 
Earlier in his profile of Kleeb, Elbein had described how the Nebraska transplant, raised by Catholic, Republican parents in "exurban South Florida," had taken to life in rural Nebraska after marrying Scott Kleeb, a Democrat who has run unsuccessfully for both the U.S. Congress and Senate from the state.  Basically, she was taken by Nebraskans' "homesteader-like sense of collective responsibility."

Elbein quotes Kleeb:
It didn’t matter if it was 2 a.m. and driving snow.  If your neighbor called to say they had a cow out or a fence down, you went to help.
And so Kleeb came to the realization that the way to "sell" opposition to the pipeline was not with an environmental message, e.g., "Save the Sandhill Cranes."  Rather, the message should be "Save the Neighbors."  So far, it's working.

A prior post about Nebraskans protesting the Keystone XL pipeline is here.  It talks about a particular down-home way Nebraskans have of doing things, of influencing people, politely.  There's some of that in this story focused on Jane Kleeb, too, as where she talks about jack-o-lantern carving outside the Governor's Mansion and a barn raising, both by anti-pipeline activists.  She explains, though, that what is significant is less the specific activity than the collective effort:
You’re asking people to be involved. They love that — it’s part of our human nature. People want to be asked to do something bigger than themselves.
Meanwhile, Elbein explains the relevance of state law (as opposed to federal, U.S. Dept. of State approval) to the pipeline:
Pipelines carrying oil, unlike those for natural gas, are mostly regulated by the states. In all but Colorado, pipelines generally get the right of eminent domain — but most states can restrict that right, determining whether pipelines are in the public interest and what routes they can take. In 13 states, including Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma (and, until recently, Nebraska), there is no such approval process. If a company wants the land but the owner doesn’t want to make a deal, it can deposit its estimated fair value with a court and start building. If a landowner wants to challenge the company, he has to square off in court against a multibillion-dollar corporation.
One of Kleeb's disciples, if you will, is rancher Randy Thompson, of Merrick County, who had these comments about eminent domain and state law.  Referring to TransCanada's agents, Thompson said:
They came out here with this great sense of entitlement, and we were just supposed to get out of the road. They said all the neighbors had signed, and if we were smart, we’d sign now — or we’d get a lot less money. These guys just treat you like bugs they can squash.
Thompson wrote to the state's governor, Dave Heineman (Rep.), and in response he got back a pamphlet about the pipeline.  Thompson was advised by his lawyer that he had few options.  Thompson comments:  
I wasn’t going to let them roll over my parents like that.  
When Thompson heard about the meetings Kleeb was organizing, he attended one.  

So what is Kleeb's secret--other than engaging people in collective action like barn raising?  Kleeb explains that she doesn't talk about the environment or climate change, instead talking "about the land." Of big donors, like Tom Steyer of California, she says they 
crave a more authentic voice. … We have a connection to rural communities that many other progressive groups just don't have.
To this, I can only say, "duh."  But how do I feel about wealthy urbanites (even progressive ones) trading on rural livelihoods?  I'm not sure.  I'd feel better knowing that the Randy Thompsons of the world were going to be able to keep ranching in Nebraska.  And I'd feel better about the Randy Thompsons of the world keeping their ranches if I knew they treated their laborers fairly and supported their local communities.  

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