On Nebraska's Farmland, Keystone XL Pipeline Debate Is Personal The pipeline's fate looms large in Washington. But for people living in Keystone XL's proposed path, the project will alter livelihoods and legacies — for better or worse, depending on whom you ask.
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On Nebraska's Farmland, Keystone XL Pipeline Debate Is Personal

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Drive down gravel Road 22 in York County, Nebraska past corn cut to stubble in rich black loam soil, past weathered farmhouses and there, by the side of the road -

Is this it, right here?

JENNI HARRINGTON: This is it, right here.

BLOCK: You'll find a small barn built out of native ponderosa pine. It's a renewable energy symbol standing smack on the proposed route of the controversial oil pipeline that TransCanada wants to build through here - Keystone XL. The barn is topped with solar panels and has a furiously spinning windmill out front. Pipeline opponents built it two summers ago.

HARRINGTON: At first I think a lot of the neighbors didn't like the barn. They thought it was like poking TransCanada in the eye. It took me back because I was like, well, what do you think they're doing walking on our land and saying, hey we're going to put a pipeline through it?

BLOCK: We've come to Nebraska to talk to people along the pipeline route to hear how the Keystone XL fight has affected this tight-knit polite community. And Keystone XL opponent Jenni Harrington told us come on over, I'll take you to the energy barn. She wants to show us inside the barn, but she's having a struggle with the lock.

HARRINGTON: It's a stubborn as the pipeline fighters. Which - we're a pretty stubborn group.

BLOCK: A pretty stubborn group that has challenged the Keystone route in the Nebraska Supreme Court. The court's ruling could come as early as this Friday. President Obama has been waiting on that decision before he decides whether to approve the pipeline. Jenni Harrington runs a nursery just down the road from this barn and she tells us as loud as the Keystone debate has been in Washington, here in York County it's talked about in hushed tones.

HARRINGTON: It's pretty cute when somebody wants to talk about it when they come into the nursery. They come behind the counter and kind of whisper in my ear and say, what's going on with the pipeline?

BLOCK: The proposed Keystone XL route would cross through her family land. Like many Nebraskans, Jenni Harrington has roots here that run deep. And that family history fuels her opposition to Keystone.

HARRINGTON: I live on our family farm that was homesteaded in the 1860s by my great-great grandfather. We've been taught that it's our job to take care of the land. If we don't take care of our natural resources, life on this planet is going to be a short time.

BLOCK: Talk to retired farmer Chuck Peterson though, and you hear a different story. Like Jenni Harrington, he has a deep long-standing connection to the land.

CHUCK PETERSON: My great-great grandparents came in 1871 to barren prairie. Tough people.

BLOCK: Chuck and his wife, Miriam, support the pipeline. It wouldn't cross their land but it would run about a half a mile away.

MIRIAM PETERSON: I'm appreciative of people wanting to conserve things and be careful with the resources we have, but as often happens with any kind of a controversy, there's so much misinformation on both sides. And they don't listen to each other, you know? I guess probably that bothers me the most.

C. PETERSON: Like the Senate.

M. PETERSON: (Laughter).

BLOCK: Do you talk about the Keystone pipeline much with your friends or neighbors?

M. PETERSON: Oh (to Chuck Peterson) I think you do at the bridge table, don't you?

I think we do somewhat. A small community often you're a little careful because you don't want to break any relationships either, over that.

BLOCK: Suddenly as we talk, Chuck Peterson gets up, goes to his garage and comes back with a sign. It's covered with dust and cobwebs.

C. PETERSON: That was put on my grandparents' farm. And I am pro-pipeline and I did not appreciate it being there.

BLOCK: The sign says Stop the TransCanada Pipeline. And when Chuck Peterson spotted it on his land, next to the road, his wife Miriam says he came home furious.

M. PETERSON: Well, Chuck came home and he said, this is the end, I've had it. And he said, nobody asked our permission, we don't agree with that and people driving by will think we do because it was on our land. When someone tries to include you in their...

C. PETERSON: Agenda.

M. PETERSON: ...Agenda, and you don't agree or haven't had a chance to even offer your opinion, it did feel personal.

BLOCK: Did you take the sign out right then?

M. PETERSON: We're going to have a burning, but it's still in the garage. (Laughter).

GREG AWTRY: OK, I'm Greg Awtry, the publisher of The York News-Times in York, Nebraska, not to be confused with The New York Times.

BLOCK: Greg Awtry defies the easy stereotype of the liberal Keystone fighter.

How would you describe your politics, generally?

AWTRY: Oh gosh, I'm very conservative. Profit is good, so I'm a capitalist.

BLOCK: This capitalist publisher figures he's written 50 editorials against Keystone XL.

AWTRY: The only place I think that this is political would be Washington. Out here on the ground, we have very conservative lifelong Republican ranchers and farmers arm-in-arm with the very liberal environmentalists who had little to nothing in common along those lines before this came up.

BLOCK: Greg Awtry's main concerns are the kind of oil that would run through the pipeline, tar sands oil diluted with chemicals. He sees that mixture as a dire threat that could contaminate the vast water supply running underneath nearly all of Nebraska.

AWTRY: Here we are talking about one of the greatest natural resources in the United States of America, the Ogalalla Aquifer, which furnishes drinking water to people in eight states. So even though the risk may be minimal, minimal risk is not acceptable.

BLOCK: Does that aquifer feel very present to you here in York?

AWTRY: Well, you know it's not a park. You can't go climb it like a mountain and you can't - it's not an underground lake. It's out of sight, out of mind. It's one of the reasons you don't see a huge uproar about it because you can't put your hand on it. You can't see it.

BLOCK: From TransCanada's perspective, if the Keystone XL pipeline does get built through Nebraska it will be out of sight, out of mind, too.

ANDREW CRAIG: I do think that Keystone XL, when it goes into the ground, will be the safest pipeline ever put in the ground.

BLOCK: We meet up with TransCanada land manager Andrew Craig, a native Nebraskan himself. It's his job to help get this pipeline built through his state and convince Nebraskans to sign on.

CRAIG: Beyond this debate, Nebraska is no different with or without Keystone XL. That's the beauty of pipelines, you know? Once they're installed and that topsoil is put back in place, they essentially disappear.

BLOCK: Craig leads us through a cornfield. The owner of this land is one of many who have granted the company the right of way to lay the pipeline here.

CRAIG: The pipe would be coming across right up here.

BLOCK: Craig tells us that in Nebraska, TransCanada has gotten the vast majority - 84 percent of landowners - to sign on. And he says the company's already paid more than $50 million to Nebraskans for the right-of-way.

How confident are you that this Keystone XL pipeline will be built? Will be coming right across the road and under this field where we're standing right now?

CRAIG: I'm very confident. I think it's good for the country. I really do. And I'm lucky enough to be close to the support that we have, even here in the state of Nebraska.

So, you know, there's a lot of talk about Keystone XL and I'm close enough to the project to realize that it is a small but vocal group of people that drive 95 percent of that.

BLOCK: And yet, that small but vocal group of self-described pipeline fighters in Nebraska has helped to delay Keystone XL for more than six years and they hope more delays might doom the project entirely.

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