When Jane Kleeb moved to Nebraska in 2007, one of the first things she noticed was that people there, though most of them identified as Republicans, were quite progressive, especially farmers and ranchers in the state’s rural areas. This insight – that personal values are more important than partisan labels – would prove key four years later as she spearheaded the successful campaign to keep the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline out of Nebraska.
In 2010, Kleeb helped run her husband Scott’s campaign for US Senate. He lost the election, but the couple and some friends went on to found Bold Nebraska, a grassroots group designed to serve as a progressive voice independent of the state’s Democratic Party. Not long after, Kleeb learned that TransCanada’s planned 1,700-mile pipeline would cross through Nebraska’s Sandhills region. She recognized how the pipeline could threaten the Ogallala aquifer – one of the largest freshwater sources in the country – and began organizing opposition to the project.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Keystone XL pipeline might be under construction today were it not for the determined resistance of Nebraskans. The farmers and ranchers that Kleeb organized made it clear that opposition to the pipeline wasn’t limited to environmentalists. Bold Nebraska’s doggedness forced the state’s Republican governor and both US Senators to come out against the project.
While the White House has delayed Keystone XL, the pipeline isn’t yet dead. Kleeb vows to keep up the fight, and says that she will continue to tap into Nebraska’s tradition of prairie populism to make sure more tar sands oil doesn’t come into the US.
You’re a well-known Democrat – and Nebraska is among the most conservative states. How did you get Nebraskans to challenge the Keystone XL pipeline?
I think, for one, that both Scott and I had built up this level of credibility with folks. We didn’t hide that we were progressives or Democrats. And so I think that folks always knew kind of where I stood. There’s also this thing where Scott’s family homesteaded out in the Sandhills, so when he ran for the [US Congress’s] Third District he spent a lot of time out in rural communities in Western Nebraska. There was this foundation of trust that I was able to essentially come in on, that my husband had built.
I worked statewide on healthcare reform for a year and a half. And I think there’s this perception that people in rural communities, while they are conservative, that they didn’t want healthcare reform, though rural communities were some of the hardest hit. Essentially, I think the bottomline is: Nebraskans are populist and independent at heart. And I think that while clearly the majority of the people in Nebraska are registered Republicans, that they like people who stand their ground. And they saw that in me, and I think I gained a lot of respect from conservative ranchers and farmers because of that.
How did you form this trans-partisan coalition?
I think a couple of things: One, I knew immediately that the Sandhills were being threatened, and that they are such an iconic part of our state. Even folks who live in Omaha, their families most likely homesteaded in the Sandhills, or they had friends whose families homesteaded in the Sandhills.…So I knew immediately that we had to focus on the Sandhills as well as the Ogallala aquifer because the main economic driver in our state is agriculture.
We had to start with the very basics, which is that we didn’t expect farmers and ranchers to come to us. We went to their communities and started having coffee one-on-one with folks who we knew were opinion leaders and leaders in their communities.…We had these living room meetings, and those grew into community hall meetings or church basement meetings.
Governor Heineman didn’t say anything about the pipeline for three or four months while … all the papers were talking about it and citizens were clearly talking about it. I stood up to him at this Farmers Union meeting and I think that was kind of a pivotal moment. Folks were like, “She’s not foolin’ around. She’s going to take it to the president as well as take it to the governor to protect the Sandhills and our water.”
What was the number one thing that Nebraskans were concerned about?
We’re not an oil pipeline state. We’re an ag state. And having this massive oil pipeline – and on top of it tar sands, which was this foreign thing – was counterintuitive to everything we know about our state. We have all of these amazing wetlands and ecotourism sites with the sandhill cranes. And then we have these massive sandhills, where the majority of our ranchers and our cattle are, and the Ogallala aquifer. I think because it was so counter to the identity of our state – which is corn and cattle – that was one reason.
I think the other one was: Folks don’t like a foreign company coming in here and telling landowners right off the bat that if they don’t sign a contract, they will take their land through eminent domain. That really pissed off a lot of people. And it was a huge misstep on TransCanada’s part, a misreading of folks and how they would stand their ground even firmer because someone was threatening them.
You’ve said that progressives and conservatives in Nebraska are “on the same page on a lot of issues.” What are those?
One is conservation of land and wildlife. A lot of hunters and ranchers and farmers who work the land every day know how critical it is to conserve land. Whether it’s through Ducks Unlimited or Pheasants Forever, those same kinds of values that progressives hold, conservatives in our state hold for our land and habitat and wildlife, too. If you’re not from a state that’s more conservative, to look at land restoration and land conservation through a hunter’s eyes or a rancher’s eyes [can seem odd]. When I moved here, that was a very new thing. I was from Florida, where people who want to protect the wetlands are, you know, tree huggers. It’s a very different perspective, but still the same values.
I think the other one is that politicians are supposed to be representing us – not big corporations. And that was such a clear one. People are pissed that TransCanada has so much power over our [state legislature.] That no matter how much citizens’ voices were amplified – in a way that we hadn’t seen in decades in our state – that TransCanada essentially is still winning. That was also a common ground value.
What are lessons you would share with organizers in other states that are dominated by conservatives?
I think you have to lead with issues and values, and not party. I am a proud Democrat, but I am not a partisan Democrat. When President Obama was not going in the direction that we thought he should, we spoke out against him. We pushed back on the president when we needed to push back on him. We sent Nebraskans to DC to get arrested in front of the White House. I think that’s critical: You can’t have a partisan hat on when you’re doing work around the environment or climate. It’s just not going to work.
But if you go in talking about this real, heavy climate change message without factoring in how is this affecting local communities, how is it affecting water, how is it affecting families’ health – those are the things that matter to people. And those are the things that matter to progressives, too. That’s why I don’t think that there is this puzzle that is not fitting together. I think it is fitting together really well. I think the problem is that for too long environmentalists have not gone to rural communities and sat down with folks and built relationships. Instead, they’ve run national campaigns trying to change federal policy. I just don’t think that’s the direction we should be going in. We should be forcing change from the state level, rather than only trying to change federal policy.
What’s next when it comes to Keystone XL?
We are standing and defending. Obama gave us a left hook out of the blue that we weren’t expecting around the Cushing decision to fast-track [a southern section of the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas]. That was not welcomed. It’s clearly one of these moments when Big Oil and TransCanada expects us to feel defeated, and expects us to get in line because the presidential campaign is gearing up. But that’s not what we are going to do. We are not getting in line and we are not going to be quiet. I think we have to go bigger. While I think the inside political game is important and critical to any fight of this level because clearly they [the oil companies] are playing that game as well, I think we have to color outside the lines on our next steps.
One of things that we are thinking about doing is building windmills along the pipeline route [laughs]. That may sound crazy and that may not stop the pipeline, but that is the energy future that we want to see. So I am starting to talk with landowners and other groups to explore this idea of what if we build smaller windmills as well as raise the money to erect at least one massive windmill to say, “This is the energy future we want. We do not want to see this pipeline coming through our land.” So if you guys do eventually get the permit for this pipeline, you’re going to have to tear down the clean energy future and we’ll be standing there with video cameras as you do.
Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal.