Terry Van Housen had a question. What he wanted to know from the 30 or so other Nebraska farmers and ranchers gathered in February at the York Community Center was this: What do you do with 10,000 dead cows?
That was the number of cattle Van Housen figured could be at risk if the Obama administration permitted the proposed 1,700-mile XL leg of the Keystone pipeline to cut across their state. Bulldozers would dig a trench not far from Van Housen’s feedlot, completing the final phase of the Keystone project and streamlining the current flow of oil from the bitumen mines of Northern Alberta toward refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. If the pipe were to leak, Van Housen said, his cattle could die.
“Can we put [those cows] on trucks and send them to Canada?” suggested Max Nelson, a stooped retired rancher who raised his hand every 10 minutes to pose other hypothetical disasters: a spill polluting the water supply of West Omaha, say, or compromising the hydroelectric dams on the Platte River.
TransCanada, the $48 billion Canadian company that owns the Keystone, has repeatedly said the XL will be “the safest pipeline ever built on U.S. soil,” a technological marvel with automatic shut-off valves and satellite monitoring. The exact composition of what will flow through the pipeline is not publicly available, but it will include bitumen — a thick, semisolid petroleum product — blended with natural gas that has been pressurized to become a liquid. If the line is approved, it could carry 830,000 barrels a day of this “diluted bitumen” across Nebraska, over 275 miles and through 515 private properties. No one knows exactly what a leak would do, but evidence from past malfunctions suggests catastrophe. In 2010, a spill from Enbridge’s Line 6B dropped 840,000 gallons of bitumen to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Four years and more than a billion dollars later, the cleanup continues. Last spring, Exxon’s Pegasus line burst near a residential area of Mayflower, Ark., spreading 210,000 gallons of bitumen through neighborhood streets, causing evacuations and leaving residents complaining of respiratory problems, nausea and headaches.
Among the farmers in the York Community Center was a petite, progressive organizer with close-cropped hair named Jane Kleeb (pronounced Klehb). She was the reason they were there. The fight over the Keystone XL has largely been portrayed as one about climate change, in which environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation and 350.org are pitted against the fossil-fuel industry. 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. Days earlier, thanks to her efforts, a state district court had thrown the construction into limbo.
Kleeb’s route to rural activism was not a predictable one. Born Jane Fleming, she was raised in a Catholic family in exurban South Florida, where her mother was a staunch Republican and the head of Broward County Right to Life. Her early childhood was spent going to candlelight vigils and making signs for anti-abortion rallies, and the absolutist approach to activism that she learned as a girl filled a deep need as she became an adolescent. She struggled with anorexia throughout her teens, she said, and community service was one of the few things that gave her life a sense of meaning. “There were times when service literally kept me alive,” she told me.
Over the years, her involvement with community-aid groups pulled her out of the Republican Party. In 2004, at 30, she pitched to the Young Democrats of America a proposal to organize young voters using grass-roots techniques. “Our belief was that one punk kid talking to another punk kid would be more likely to believe a message than if some preppy kid came to their door,” she said. The Young Democrats hired her as its executive director, and in 2005, as she was preparing for its quarterly meeting in Phoenix, a contact asked if a Democratic House candidate from Nebraska could address the group. “I said: ‘Nebraska? No way,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘I’m not helping some Republican fake liberal who just wants to use the youth vote to get out of the primaries.’ ” Then she saw a picture of Scott Kleeb, and her resistance immediately softened. “I was like: ‘Approved. Definitely. Whatever it takes to get him here.’ ”
Scott Kleeb spoke at the gathering, and over the course of the campaign season, the two kept running into each other at Democratic fund-raisers around the country. Scott began calling her to ask for campaign advice, and she traveled to Nebraska to help organize his operation. He lost in the general election, but he came closer than any Democrat in over 30 years to winning in one of the most conservative districts in the country. The day after his defeat, Scott invited her to spend Thanksgiving on his family’s ranch. Four months later they married, and Jane, who’d never had any real contact with rural America, moved to Nebraska. She fell in love with the people and their homesteader-like sense of collective responsibility. “It didn’t matter if it was 2 a.m. and driving snow,” she said, “if your neighbor called to say they had a cow out or a fence down, you went to help.”
After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Kleeb campaigned throughout the state to win Senator Ben Nelson’s vote for Obamacare. In the time she spent rallying Nebraska voters to pressure him, Kleeb realized that residents were much more receptive to nonconservative messages than anyone expected. In March 2010, she started the progressive group Bold Nebraska with a grant from a prominent Omaha Democrat. The organization’s mission was to change Nebraska’s political landscape by organizing power blocs along various progressive issues — as long as they weren’t abortion rights. “No one was talking about all the other issues facing our state,” Kleeb said. “Just: ‘Are you pro-life or pro-choice?’ ”
That May, a friend of Kleeb’s at the National Wildlife Federation told her about a State Department hearing on the Keystone XL in York County, in the southeastern part of the state. TransCanada’s proposed line would cross the route of the huge annual migration of sandhill cranes, and federation organizers were concerned about how a spill would affect the birds. They hoped Kleeb might attend the meeting with them and join forces in opposing the plan.
Kleeb wanted to steer clear of the issue. Bold Nebraska had yet to find its feet, and she was looking for a cause to unite progressives with Nebraska’s growing independent population. Environmental campaigns had never resonated with her, and despite farmers’ appreciation for their land, she knew that conservatives in Nebraska were not sympathetic to what they saw as a lefty cause.
“You think environmentalist, you think hippie kid on the street who doesn’t shower,” Kleeb said. “I felt like there was no emotional connection in the fights they were waging.”
Her friend pushed her, though — hadn’t her husband’s ancestors homesteaded on the edge of the Sandhills? — and in the end, Kleeb showed up at the York Community Center to find the room packed with farmers who opposed the pipeline. One by one, they took the stand to describe how they had been bullied by TransCanada’s land agents and to talk about their concerns for their land and, especially, their water supply.
The pipeline’s route would pass through the Sandhills in north-central Nebraska and over the Ogallala Aquifer, the lifeblood of Great Plains agriculture. In much of the region, the water table is at or near the surface. At the time of the meeting, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster was still underway, devastating fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and leaving Nebraska farmers worried about a spill in their own backyards.
Kleeb stood in the back, stunned. She had never thought of the potential for a large-scale environmental disaster in the middle of Nebraska. All of the press material she’d been given, all of the briefings from environmental groups — none of it had left much of an impression. But these people did. “All I could think about in that room was how they reminded me of Scott’s family, the folks I fell in love with,” she said. “Farmers and ranchers don’t think politically. I felt like I had to help.”
Kleeb had spent the last 15 years looking for dramatic, visual stories to advance political agendas, working on the principle that the best way to convert people was to show them others who were affected by an issue. Here was one of the best stories she’d ever seen: Conservative American farmers rise up to protect their land. She could use the image of the family farm to reframe the way Nebraskans thought about environmentalism. It wasn’t going to be Save the Sandhill Cranes. It was going to be Save the Neighbors.
The unrest Kleeb witnessed in York was present all along the pipeline’s proposed route, from Montana to the Texas coast. By the early 2000s, projections were being made that the bitumen boom in the Alberta oil sands region would outstrip the capacity of the existing infrastructure. TransCanada’s Keystone project was one of several pipelines designed to move bitumen and heavy crude south as efficiently as possible. Starting in 2008, land agents working with the company spread out along the route to begin acquiring easements. They sat at kitchen tables and told landowners how the line would wean the country off dependence on foreign oil, how it would bring jobs to Americans and money to the landowners. But the terms they offered seemed one-sided: TransCanada would hold the easements for as long as the pipeline was in place, and the company reserved the right to abandon the pipe in the ground.
In Texas, some landowners sued the company in state court, arguing that the project misused eminent-domain laws. One landowner in East Texas, David Daniel, built a network of treehouses along his 20 acres, and environmental activists from the group Tar Sands Blockade camped in them, slowing the pipeline’s progress. (Daniel backed down when the company’s lawyers threatened to sue him.) But it was only in Nebraska that the unrest coalesced into a cohesive, powerful movement.
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.
John Stoody, a spokesman with the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, told me that pipeline companies needed strong eminent-domain laws so they could build vital infrastructure and “prevent a single person from stopping a project that will benefit the greater public good.” This leaves landowners with no bargaining power when the companies come calling for their land. “Pipeline companies hold all the cards,” says Jeremy Hopkins, a Virginia attorney who has represented hundreds of landowners in eminent-domain cases. “The company decides where they’re going to put the pipeline, the rights they’re going to take. No ordinary buyer has that kind of power.”
Whatever its legal rights, TransCanada badly misread popular sentiment in Nebraska. The state is Republican but deeply independent; it was the home of William Jennings Bryan and the late-1800s populist movement. Rather than rallying behind the idea of American independence from Middle Eastern oil, Nebraskans saw a foreign company coming into their state and asserting rights to land that had been in their families for generations. “The attitude when doing business here is, Treat me fairly, tell me the truth, I’ll work with you,” said David Domina, an Omaha lawyer who represents hundreds of farmers and ranchers in negotiations with TransCanada. Nebraska’s public utilities would take years to plan a new telephone or power project, and they would work hard to convince farmers that a project was in the public interest. But TransCanada came in with “corporate weaponry blazing,” Domina said. He claimed that agents lied to his clients about whether their neighbors had signed easement agreements and about how little money they would get if they didn’t. TransCanada, through a spokesman, Shawn Howard, denied those accusations. The company stressed that it does not provide information to one landowner about another’s private property and pointed out that all registered easements are publicly available.
When the agents contacted Randy Thompson about his family’s land in Merrick County, Thompson was confused at first, and then angry. “They came out here with this great sense of entitlement,” Thompson told me, “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 Gov. Dave Heineman asking if TransCanada had eminent-domain authority, and he remembers being mailed a pamphlet about the pipeline in response. Thompson’s lawyer told him that there was probably nothing he could do. “I wasn’t going to let them roll over my parents like that,” Thompson said. Late in 2010, he read that Kleeb was organizing resistance to the pipeline. A lifelong Republican who had never done anything more political than vote, Thompson began attending Bold Nebraska meetings.
When I walked into Kleeb’s house in Hastings in February, she was dressed in sweatpants and sitting in her paper-strewn office. She was in the middle of a fund-raising call with progressive donors, including the California billionaire Tom Steyer, who were interested in rural organizing and fighting climate change. But Kleeb was careful not to use the word “environment” or mention climate change, preferring to talk “about the land” and the rich foreigners putting the country’s water at risk. “Donors crave a much more authentic voice,” she explained. “We have a connection to rural communities that many other progressive groups just don’t have.”
In the four years since that first meeting in York, Kleeb has logged thousands of miles traveling up and down the pipeline route, from Texas to Alberta, building relationships with ranchers and activists. But her main goal was always organizing Nebraskans, building relationships throughout the state’s small towns with groups like the Nebraska Farmers Union and then learning about local leaders through them. She targeted those leaders directly, trying to persuade them to invite people to her meetings. The farther north she pushed into the Sandhills, the bigger the meetings got. After her presentations, she watched to see whom residents crowded around and focused her future efforts on them.
“There were all these old people sitting in the back with their arms crossed, testing me,” she said of the meetings in the Sandhills. “It was like they wanted to make sure I was going to stick around.”
One of Kleeb’s tenets of organizing is that if you want to reach a specific group of people, you have to use someone from that group to help you make your case. “One thing the climate organizations don’t get is that the scientific numbers don’t move people,” she said. “People here care about their neighbors. So we were looking for a face.”
Kleeb met Thompson at a meeting in the Sandhills in 2010. She learned that he came from a long line of farmers and had worked as a cattle auctioneer. Over the next few months they became “fast friends,” Thompson said. He often stood silently by her like a bodyguard at meetings that grew contentious. He knew people in the area and was at ease talking publicly. (During an appearance on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC this year, in reference to TransCanada’s claims about the pipeline’s safety, he asked dryly, “What was the safest ship that was ever built?”)
Throughout the 2011 state legislative session, Kleeb and her growing group of supporters tried to get the state to establish some process to regulate oil pipelines, but even progressive Democrats, Kleeb told me, were resistant. They argued that Nebraska needed the jobs.
Though Bold Nebraska’s campaign got a smattering of national attention, media coverage of the Keystone XL was primarily concerned with the doings of the large environmentalist organizations — what Kleeb calls “Big Green.” Few people outside the movement realized that Nebraska had become ground zero for the fight to stop the pipeline.
When the legislative session ended without any regulations being passed, Kleeb approached Thompson and said she needed a face for this campaign. “I told him that if he agreed to help, there would be negative stories and backlash.” Thompson was willing, and Bold Nebraska soon started the “Stand With Randy” campaign, putting his face on T-shirts, yard signs and a website. “There’s one question we are asking every Nebraskan, including all of our elected officials, this summer,” the home page read. “Do you stand with Randy or do you stand with TransCanada?”
The culmination of the effort came at a Nebraska Cornhuskers football game in Lincoln that September, when a TransCanada ad titled “Husker Pipeline” ran on the stadium’s giant HuskerVision screen. The stadium erupted in spontaneous booing, delighting Kleeb, who later asked people to go to State Department hearings in Cornhusker red. The next week, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced that it was cutting sponsorship ties with the company.
To the leaders of the larger climate-change movement, the group’s work in Nebraska has turned the tide against the Keystone XL. Bill McKibben, one of the intellectual leaders of the movement, told me that the Cornhusker uprising was one of the first moments he thought they could actually win the larger pipeline fight. “There’s no question that that moment happened because of the work Jane was doing,” he said. Kenny Bruno, who has coordinated many of the groups involved in the movement, went even further. “Without Jane and a few other people, without their organizing and education on the route, that pipeline would have been built already.”
In the fall of 2011, Bold Nebraska held a pumpkin-carving party; hundreds of supporters surrounded the Governor’s Mansion with jack-o’-lanterns that spelled out “91 leaks and 0 regulations is scary,” a reference to one prediction about the number of times the Keystone could spill over its lifetime. On Nov. 10, the State Department, which would have to approve a permit for the pipeline because it crossed international borders, announced that it would conduct an “in-depth assessment” of alternative routes because of concerns about the Sandhills. Four days after that, TransCanada presented a new route for the XL leg that would bypass the region. The Nebraska Legislature passed the Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act a week later, establishing for the first time in the state’s history pipeline siting and regulatory requirements. Now companies could not use eminent domain to take land for a pipeline wider than six inches without first having its route approved by the state’s Public Service Commission.
By then, the Keystone XL was a national issue: Republicans and Democrats in Congress spent the later part of 2011 pushing Obama to make a decision on whether to approve a permit. But the State Department was required to do an environmental-impact study of the new route, and TransCanada would have to acquire new easements. With the status of the Keystone XL stretching off into the indeterminate future, the State Department denied the permit. The entire northern part of the line — from Nebraska to the border — was now blocked.
Throughout the fight in Nebraska, TransCanada showed a baffling inability to learn from its public-relations mistakes. After being defeated by a campaign focused on disrespect for the Nebraskans, the company did an end run around the regulatory system the Legislature had set up only months before.
In January 2012, State Senator Jim Smith, a TransCanada ally, sponsored a bill that let oil-pipeline companies apply directly to the governor, bypassing the new process overseen by the Public Service Commission. (After TransCanada’s planned reroute, Governor Heineman declared himself a supporter of the pipeline.) The bill passed; that May, TransCanada reapplied to the State Department for a permit. In January 2013, despite fervent lobbying from Bold Nebraska, Heineman approved the redirected pipeline. It was a step closer to State Department approval.
The pipeline’s new path, however, presented a chance for Bold Nebraska and others to stymie the company by organizing landowners before they could sign easement agreements, something the group had been too late to do with many of the owners on the first route. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Kleeb and Domina, the Omaha attorney, rallied about a quarter of the people on the new route into a power bloc to resist the company.
By getting Heineman to approve the Keystone XL, TransCanada had also left itself legally vulnerable: If the courts ruled that the governor didn’t have such authority, the company had no real leverage to push the pipeline forward. So Kleeb and Domina picked three landowners to sue the office of the governor, arguing that the law giving him the power to permit pipelines was unconstitutional. In February, the state district court ruled that it was.
Although the company could once again apply through the Public Service Commission for permission to go forward, it is instead waiting while Heineman’s attorney general appeals to the State Supreme Court; a ruling is unlikely before late this year. On April 18, the State Department announced that it wouldn’t decide on TransCanada’s permit application until the Nebraska court ruled. As of today, Nebraska is the crucial piece in determining the fate of the line: Until the State Supreme Court rules, there can’t be a final route, and until there’s a final route, the State Department won’t decide on the permit.
The company’s public-relations team has responded by arguing that Kleeb fomented the farmers’ uprising on behalf of East Coast environmentalists who hate fossil fuels. “Jane is a very effective misinformer,” Barry Rubin, a former head of the Nebraska Democratic Party and now a consultant for TransCanada, told me. “She uses hyperbole and fear to make reasonable people think that something awful is about to happen. She’s embellishing to susceptible people.” We were sitting in Rubin’s office, drinking Blanton’s bourbon. He said that he was concerned about the environment — he had voted for Obama twice — but that “there’s the delusion that if the pipeline isn’t permitted, it will slow development of the oil sands. It won’t. The oil will get used.” If not in a pipeline, he added, it would come out in trains.
When I asked Howard, TransCanada’s spokesman, about accusations that the company threatened landowners, he responded, “Saying, ‘Here’s an offer for compensation, here’s a process we’re required to follow,’ I’m not sure how that’s a threat.” He said the company had never claimed eminent domain in Nebraska. Rubin and Howard genuinely seemed not to understand why the farmers were upset — they believed that the problem was Jane Kleeb. “It’s just Chicago-style politics,” Rubin told me. “Jane takes the Randy Thompsons of the world, winds them up and lets them go.”
Not long after that conversation, I asked Thompson if he thought there might be any truth to the suggestion that Kleeb “wound him up.” “Like we’re not smart enough to figure out they’re screwing us?” he said. “I had my eyes closed for a long time,” he went on. “But they’re open now.”
Thompson’s family land was spared when TransCanada rerouted the line, but he has stayed involved with the movement. “All these people helped me,” he said of the other activists. “If it weren’t for them, we’d still be on the line. So I’m going to do whatever I can. It’s not good for our country. I feel very strongly about that.”
“It’s going to be critical for us in the states to keep pressure on TransCanada and keep the coalition together,” Kleeb recently told me. Victory, she said, could be as debilitating to a movement as a defeat, sapping it of urgency. Bold Nebraska needed to shift now, she said. Last year, Kleeb raised over $65,000, most of it in small donations, to build a barn covered in solar panels on a local family’s farm. The barn was partly an exercise in political theater: If TransCanada wanted to build a pipeline, Kleeb said repeatedly, it would have to destroy locally produced clean energy to do it. But the barn is also part of a larger strategy to use the success of the pipeline fight to talk about clean energy. Polls show that a majority of Nebraskans are in favor of more renewables, and Kleeb’s next step is to build a coalition around that.
She also wants to expand Bold Nebraska’s network beyond the state. Her next focus is South Dakota, where TransCanada’s four-year construction permit will need to be recertified in June. The company will face an environment far more hostile than the one it encountered when the project was first proposed.
In late April, Kleeb held rallies on the National Mall with a group referred to as the “new C.I.A.” — the Cowboy and Indian Alliance — made up of ranchers from along the pipeline’s route and Sioux from South Dakota tribes. Kleeb stood onstage, flanked by Sioux elders waving tribal flags. She urged people to write to Obama to tell him to deny the pipeline for good. “We can’t beat TransCanada with money,” she said. “We don’t have millions to spend. But we have you.” Standing in the audience, I was struck by how insular the group seemed, hardened by a shared struggle. They talked with great feeling about what the fight against TransCanada had given them: a new community, new friends, a new purpose.
When I was in Nebraska, I asked Kleeb what the point was of actions like the jack-o’-lantern carvings and the barn raising. She laughed. Part of it was for the cameras, she said, but it went deeper. “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.”