Keystone Pipeline’s Unlikely Allies

Cross-cutting political alliances — that is, collaboration among unlikely partners — are essential to a healthy culture. They are so rare these days, however, that often we don't recognize them when they happen.

Such is the case with the hubbub surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Keystone XL pipeline would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. Recently, the Obama administration (the President himself, really) denied a permit for the pipeline, which needed approval from the State Department because it crossed the U.S.-Canada border. Obama's decision was immediately picked up in the Republican presidential primary, with each candidate denouncing the President for killing jobs.

Keystone became yet another left-right schoolyard brawl — but that's not the way it started.

Keystone XL was chugging along, no problem, this past summer. Yes, environmentalists were protesting at the White House (with various Hollywood stars being hauled off in handcuffs). But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expected to make a decision on the project by December. Everything pointed to approval.
But then ranchers and farmers in Nebraska began to question the route Keystone was taking. The pipeline was set to go through the sensitive Sand Hills region of the state and overtop the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of water for much of Great Plains agriculture. More than a thousand ranchers and farmers came to protest the pipeline at a State Department hearing in Atkinson, Nebraska, in late September.

In Atkinson

In Atkinson

Over a thousand ranchers and farmers attended a State Department hearing in Atkinson, Nebraska, most to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo by Alex Matzke

Republican politicians aren’t known for opposing energy projects — and they care even less for what East Coast environmentalists say or do — but the agitation in Nebraska was strong enough that Republican Gov. Dave Heineman in August was telling TransCanada it needed to change the route through the Sand Hills. State Sen. Ken Haar was calling for a special session of the legislature to give the state more power to control Keystone. The Nebraska Farmers Union opposed the pipeline and so did thousands of workaday ranchers.

By October 24, Gov. Heineman had decided to call a special session of the state legislature to pass a law that would force TransCanada to change the route of the Keystone pipeline away from the Sand Hills and the Ogallala. Any change in the pipeline’s route would delay the entire project, according to a Reuters story. Gov. Heineman knew that. He called the legislature to Lincoln on October 28.

Laws were passed and TransCanada agreed to change its route. The Republican administration in Lincoln agreed to work with the Democratic administration in Washington, D.C., to do an environmental assessment of the new route, once it is announced. The whole process would take about a year.

What a great story! Ranchers, enviros, Hollywood stars, Republican state legislators and a Democratic President all agree to a certain extent. Republicans in Lincoln come to an agreement with Democrats in D.C. about how to proceed.

But instead of being a model for how politics should work, the Keystone story was turned into a left/right morality play. Jane Mayer in The New Yorker finds a way to write about Keystone as a triumph of East Coast environmentalism without mentioning the key role played by Nebraska ranchers.

And Republicans in Congress forced the Obama administration into making a decision on the pipeline before a new route was ever picked and before the Nebraska environmental assessment was ever made. They made Keystone into a story about a job-killing President without ever acknowledging the role of Republicans in the Nebraska statehouse.

The real story didn't fit anyone's plan.