After an afternoon of floating down a nearby river, sampling Bernt’s organic cheese and ice cream, and listening to a cowboy poet, they sat under a large white tent to talk about what really brought them together: standing up to the big pipeline company TransCanada.
When TransCanada said its $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta to Texas would pass about two miles from this tiny town in central Nebraska — crossing 92 miles of the state’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills and parts of the vast Ogallala Aquifer — it stirred opposition throughout the state. Political boundaries crumbled as the pipeline proposal united Nebraskans across party lines and divided them within. Ultimately, it became a political litmus test in the presidential race.
Its route riled Nebraskans who fear water contamination and resent the ability of a corporation — especially a foreign one — to wield the right of eminent domain.
People such as “no opinion Tom” Genung, whose mother-in-law meekly accepted TransCanada’s initial offer, took his protest to Washington, where he was arrested outside the White House. Jim Knopic, who learned about activism fighting big hog-raising companies, got into the fight. And Bernt, who sells beef, dairy products and vegetables, grew upset that he might lose his organic certification if the pipeline crossed under the Cedar River where his cattle drink.
So when President Obama rejected TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline proposal, saying his administration needed more time to weigh the environmental impact of the route through Nebraska, he was practicing his own version of “triangulation” politics, playing to environmental groups and making common cause with people in a solidly red state.
“I was really impressed with that,” Bernt said of Obama’s decision in January. “He showed more backbone that I thought he had.”
Months after Obama had hoped to put the issue to rest, the pipeline remains a confounding political issue with traps for both presidential candidates. GOP hopeful Mitt Romney has played up the issue, but here some conservatives are put off by his unequivocal support for the project with scant mention of its environmental impact.
“Nebraska, even though we’re one of the reddest of red states, we have this prairie populism streak,” said Philip M. Young, a political consultant and former executive director of the state Republican Party.
At the same time, Obama must tread carefully in an election year in which Democrats as well as Republicans are seduced by the promise of jobs — even if it may be an illusion. He has backed the 485-mile southern leg of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Texas Gulf Coast, and last month TransCanada received the last of three permits it needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction.