Tar Sands Showdown in the Nebraska Sandhills

Nebraska Keystone XL
Fourth-generation Nebraska rancher Ben Gotschall speaks against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

It wasn’t yet 3:30 p.m., and already there were heated words at the entrance to West Holt High School in Atkinson, Nebraska. The school was playing host to a State Department public hearing on Keystone XL -- a proposed pipeline meant to carry synthetic crude oil pumped from the Alberta tar sands in Canada nearly 2,000 miles to Port Arthur and Houston on the Texas Gulf Coast. Yesterday’s hearing came hard on the heels of a contentious gathering at the Pershing Auditorium in Lincoln on Tuesday and was one of eight such listening sessions crammed into a week of marathon hearings in cities and small towns across the six states the pipeline would cross, all in an effort to settle whether such a project is in the national interest. But, for the moment, the debate was focused on a more basic question: Who would be allowed to speak?

Someone had instructed attendees to divide into two lines -- pro-pipeline and anti-pipeline -- so they could be split into sides of the gymnasium and given alternating slots, each with its own podium, and afforded equal opportunity to address the officials sent here by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It all sounded very reasonable, only it was not at all in keeping with federal requirements for the event.

“Absolutely not,” barked Wendy Nassmacher, a State Department spokeswoman. She was more than a little exasperated -- and, in her defense, the rules (first among them that attendees would be allowed to speak on a first-come, first-served basis) were printed on a five-foot-tall placard in the entryway.

In the snack area outside the gymnasium, organizers were gingerly trying to zipper the two lines back into one and having everyone sign a single sheet at a folding table just outside the door. If it wasn’t already painfully apparent who was who, nearly all pipeline supporters -- most out-of-towners, many representatives from pipefitters unions bussed in from as far away as Missouri, Oklahoma, and Illinois -- had shown up wearing blaze orange, while area residents arrived in Husker red, the crimson color of Nebraska football that dominates the state.

Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, one of the key opponents to the pipeline, was fuming over the whole situation.

“The unions knew that they were outnumbered in Lincoln,” she told me, “so they just shipped in more people this time -- and instead of taking seats, they’re taking speaking slots. And it’s not right. None of these folks are from here. Not a one. Because if they were, they’d be wearing red.”

A steady stream of corporate flacks and hired lobbyists and paid scientific experts employed by TransCanada, the corporation intent on building the pipeline, have descended on the state in recent months, leaving many ranchers -- who take special pride in an ethic of square dealing -- feeling besieged by outside interests bent on hijacking the hearing process and fast-tracking a pipeline that a majority of Nebraskans now oppose (according to a poll commissioned by environmental groups). They fear that key decisions are being made in backroom deals by people who don’t appreciate or understand the preciousness and fragility of the Nebraska Sandhills or the Ogallala Aquifer that makes life here possible. Even Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, an agribusiness-friendly Republican best known for cutting taxes and curbing abortion rights, expressed frustration at his conversations with TransCanada execs and officials from the State Department, saying at a press conference on Wednesday that he feared the pipeline was already “a done deal.”

Back in line at West Holt High, Ben Gotschall was typically unfazed. “I just want to see the new gym,” he deadpans. Now 31, Ben started going to high school here fifteen years ago, often staying with his grandparents during the week, rather than making the 22-mile drive to his family home twice a day. He’s since published a full-length book of poetry and taught college English, but his heart remains on the ranch. He wore a red plaid Western shirt and a black cowboy hat with a length of rope for the band, and the seams at the bottom of his jeans were split open to accommodate his boots. His quiet exterior and heavy-lidded eyes can make him seem serene, even sleepy. But make no mistake: Ben Gotschall is wide-awake and fighting mad -- and he is here to be heard.


Ben GotschallJust the night before, Ben and I had climbed the sandy bluffs near the edge of his family ranch. He likes to go there toward sundown this time of year, when the air turns butter-yellow and a fine haze rises from the western meadow where his father grazes their fat steers. Ben’s family has been on their land for nearly 75 years. In November 1936, his great-grandfather, Ernest, a sharecropper outside of Crofton in Knox County, sold his farm equipment, loaded everything the family owned into his Durant sedan, and with the help of a few neighbors on horseback drove his hundred head of cattle here. “There weren’t as many trees or fences back then,” Ben said. On the fourth day, they got the cattle to Atkinson and loaded them into the stock pens as a storm came bearing down, blowing and drifting snow. Ben’s great-grandparents had to sleep that night on the floor of the sale barn office, but the next morning they loaded up and drove the last 22 miles to the 10,000 acres Ernest had purchased here. The land has been divided and subdivided by the children and grandchildren, but it all remains Gotschall land -- including the 1,300-acre section worked by Ben’s parents.

“This is about the highest place on the ranch,” Ben said, as we reached the top of the tallest bluff. It’s not much more than a hummock by most standards, but, rising above the flat expanse, the view was commanding -- and Ben seemed to know every inch of it. From atop the bluff, Ben traced for me the path of the planned pipeline: from the pumping station near where he attended Sunday school, past the one-room schoolhouse where Ben and his older siblings went (and their father and grandfather before them), to where the pipe finally would cross Holt Creek, barely a mile from where a flow well bubbles into a holding tank for his family’s cattle. When Ben passes the flow well, he always stops to take a drink -- placing his hands on the rim of the steel tank and lowering his body down, like doing a push-up, until his lips meet the cold water upwelling from the aquifer below. This was one of the simplest innovations of the Sandhills settlers -- drilling a pipe down until the pressure of the aquifer forces a steady flow of groundwater to the surface -- and it remains critical to raising livestock or growing crops here. It’s also the reason ranchers are so worried about Keystone XL pipeline crossing their land -- worried enough that some of them, including Ben, were willing to be arrested a month ago at tar sands protests in front of the White House.

“Every ranch has multiple wells,” Ben said. “If you have a pipeline leak under ground and the plume hits where your well is, you’ve got chemicals coming up. And it’s not contained to the groundwater. It flows over into the creek. The creek flows into the Elkhorn River. The Elkhorn River flows into the Missouri -- and keeps going. So groundwater can quickly become surface water.”

The worry is compounded by TransCanada’s own admission that their leak detection system only identifies leaks of more than 1 percent of the flow. “If they’re pumping 800,000 barrels or 900,000 barrels a day,” Ben said, “it could be leaking 8,000 or 9,000 barrels a day, and they wouldn’t even know it. That’s a lot of oil that could be leaking, for who knows how long. The first indication on a leak like that would have to be when it gets to ground level and gets in somebody’s water. People start dying or cattle start dying, and they can’t figure out what the deal is.”

TransCanada says it would truck in water for any ranch affected by a leak, but Ben dismisses that. He reminded me that five generations of his family have lived on this land. Will TransCanada still be trucking in water another five generations from now? Besides, a leak would affect a lot more than just the wells and creeks. “We don’t know what it would do to the grass,” Ben said, “because we do have sub-irrigated meadows here. If the oil or the chemicals are under the ground, and it’s four feet down, well, this is native prairie grass. What you see above ground is a mirror of what you see under the ground. There’s places out here where the grass is shoulder-high on me, so the roots would basically be sitting right at the level of that pipeline.”

“And what are we supposed to do about it? Just let it happen, I guess.”

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