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How ranchers won a battle against tar sands oil line

After an increasingly well organized fight by small ranchers and climate activists, the Obama administration has put a hold on approval of a controversial pipeline. For now, anyway.

A valley in the Sandhills near Stuart, Neb.

A valley in the Sandhills near Stuart, Neb. Lisa Song/InsideClimate News

Cindy Myers (left) and Connie Weichman (right) on the Weichman family ranch near Stuart, Neb. Ranchers were the key to changing the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, but they say they aren't finished yet.

Cindy Myers (left) and Connie Weichman (right) on the Weichman family ranch near Stuart, Neb. Ranchers were the key to changing the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, but they say they aren't finished yet. Lisa Song/InsideClimate News

Connie and Leon Weichman had just finished branding some calves Monday when Connie's niece texted her the news: 

TransCanada, the Alberta-based company that wants to build an oil pipeline through the middle of the United States, had finally agreed to reroute it away from the Nebraska Sandhills where the Weichmans live and ranch.

The couple had been looking forward to this moment for almost four years, but the victory was less than they'd hoped for. TransCanada's agreement with the Nebraska state legislature would keep the pipeline out of the Sandhills, an ecologically sensitive prairie that overlies the Ogallala aquifer. But it wouldn't do anything to prevent the next route from swinging close enough to the Weichmans' property to endanger their land. 

And it wouldn't protect Nebraska ranchers outside the Sandhills, who are equally dependent on regional groundwater.

Connie Weichman, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and silver-rimmed glasses, doesn't consider herself an environmentalist and had never before participated in local politics. But along with a steadily growing group of Nebraskans — most of them also first-time activists — she and her husband played a key role in moving the pipeline route out of the Sandhills. 

In November, the State Department extended the pipeline review process by a year to study alternative routes through Nebraska. Four days later, TransCanada announced it would forgo the Sandhills route.

Environmental groups throughout the nation have celebrated these events as a significant achievement in their battle to stop the pipeline, which would funnel up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. But they also agree that the unlikely activists from Nebraska helped turn the tide.

Ken Winston, a policy advocate in Nebraska's chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Nebraska coalition included concerned citizens from throughout the state.

"This is a movement that has come from Nebraskans, and it's large spread," Winston said. "Their involvement cut across the political spectrum…. Even if they reject the label, they are truly environmentalists in the best sense of the word."

The Weichmans' entry to activism began in 2008, when TransCanada offered to pay them for a two-mile easement on their property. At first they said no, fearing that diluted bitumen — a special kind of heavy crude produced from tar sands oil — might leak from the pipeline into their groundwater. When the company threatened to take their land using eminent domain, they finally accepted the offer. But by then they also were ready to join the fight against the Sandhills route.

It seemed like an impossible task. The Sandhills' sparse population gives residents little political clout: Holt County, where the Weichmans live, is home to just 10,500 people, equal to 1 percent of the population of Rhode Island spread over an area twice as large. The ranchers were more accustomed to fighting blizzards than foreign corporations, and long days of physical labor didn't leave them much time for organizing.

But Connie Weichman persisted. She began writing letters to state senators. She spoke with reporters and drove four hours each way to Lincoln, the state capital, to testify at public hearings.

"People took a stand up here, and they're fighting for their land," she said. "You could say we're like the pioneer people in a way, trying to preserve what [we have]."

Many of the Weichmans' neighbors became similarly involved. Cindy Myers, a nurse who lives nearby, started writing op-eds for a local newspaper in 2009. A year later, she joined her first anti-pipeline rally in Nebraska. After that she said everything just "snowballed."

Almost before she knew it, Myers had flown to Washington, D.C., to meet with her state representatives. She visited the capital again on November 6 to join the anti-pipeline rally at the White House. "It was so inspiring," she said. "So many people came up to me and said, 'You're from Nebraska—thanks for what you're doing. It's because of you that this issue is alive.'"


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 2, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

It's great that they got the pipeline rerouted. Should they manage to kill it, it is practically guaranteed that a line will be constructed to Kitimat on the northern British Columbia coast, putting supertankers through the long narrow inlets there. A big spill is a question of when, not if.

While I hate to see the tar sands developed at all, I'd rather see the products stay on this continent instead of going to China by such a treacherous route.

Posted Tue, Dec 6, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

If they manage to kill it, it's also possible that they will kill a pipeline to Kitimat as well. Tar Sands mining is a huge ecological disaster.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Dec 6, 9:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree, though I'd add that it is more than a disaster, it is madness on a colossal, make that planetary, scale. But what makes you think "they" could kill a pipeline to Kitimat? It's an "all-Canadian" route. They may have single payer health insurance in Canada but they don't have laws like the Endangered Species Act or NEPA. I don't see who or what is capable of stopping it. "First Nations" can be bought off or silenced in more nefarious ways. I dearly hope I am wrong, but please tell me how it is not an inevitability if the Gulf route isn't built (or maybe even if it is...)

Posted Wed, Dec 7, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Canadians are not totally business centric. It is possible to have civil disobedience in Canada. They have protested clear cutting in some forests and at least slowed down the logging. There is still hope that tar sands mining won't be full disaster that it could be.

GaryP

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