Nebraska's Pipeline Revolt
Last Saturday was a perfect day for Cornhusker football: the leaves had fully turned but still clung to the trees, and the bright sun held such promise that, despite the nippy weather, University of Nebraska undergraduates came pouring toward Memorial Stadium decked in nothing but shorts and red T-shirts. When I arrived at field level, Nebraska’s underclass punters were sending wobbly kicks arcing into the air to warm up the returners in the north end zone, and the visiting Michigan State offense ran passing drills at the other end. The Nebraska band plinked out tunes on vibraphones along the sidelines. But when the HuskerVision screen roared to life, blaring music and flashing video and graphics, the fans filtering into the stands roused a smattering of applause. And by the time the starting lineup was announced, including the offensive line, introduced simply as “The Pipeline,” the crowd rallied into rounds of respectful cheers.
A visiting fan might never have known that only a few weeks before, the stadium had been turned into an unlikely political battleground over the effort by foreign energy giant TransCanada to build a $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline, known as Keystone XL, that would carry a mixture of diluted bitumen and chemicals from the Alberta tar sands across the Nebraska Sandhills to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The igniting spark for the skirmish was a slickly produced, one-minute advertising spot played on the HuskerVision screen.
Titled “Husker Pipeline,” it was ostensibly a tribute to Nebraska’s much-loved offensive line, singling out the National Championship-winning 1995 squad that played under legendary Coach Tom Osborne, who is now the university’s athletic director. But by attempting to enlist the nostalgia of the Cornhusker faithful for a time when the school’s relentless ground game and hulking offensive line better matched a state where hardscrabble existence was defined by ranching in the western Sandhills, beef-kill in the packinghouses of Omaha, and endless swaths of corn in between, TransCanada made a grave tactical error. (Watch the promotional spot, obtained exclusively by OnEarth.)
“That ad was like a punch to the gut,” said Lynne Schroeder, a Lincoln-area Realtor. She was sitting in the south end zone on September 10 for the home game against Fresno State, staring straight at HuskerVision when the TransCanada logo appeared on screen. She remembered the crowd letting out a collective gasp. Everyone in Nebraska lives and dies with the football team, Schroeder said, but livelihoods and whole ways of life depend on the state’s close connection to water -- a connection that many feel would be threatened by TransCanada’s plans to cross the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies most of Nebraska and parts of seven other states. Fourth and fifth graders travel to Grand Island to learn about the aquifer at the Children’s Groundwater Festival. And nearly every Nebraskan has family members whose crops and livestock rely on its water. (Schroeder’s husband grew up on a farm in the central Sandhills, and the family’s cattle graze sub-irrigated meadows.) She felt as if TransCanada was saying that Nebraskans were “a bunch of dumb hicks,” too stupid to see through a marketing ploy.
“I was just awestruck that they would put this in front of us,” she said.
“Did anyone boo?” I asked her.
“Oh, yes,” Schroeder said. “I was one of them,” she added and burst out laughing, giddy and uneasy, it seemed, with the audacity of Nebraska fans booing in Memorial Stadium.
But that swell of spontaneous opposition proved to be a major attention-getter and turning point in the debate over Keystone XL in Nebraska -- and nationwide. Pipeline opponents -- fresh off two weeks of high-profile civil disobedience in front of the White House in which more than 1,200 activists were arrested -- seized on the unexpected opening to help push back against a project that, until recently, had seemed a safe bet to receive approval. In late August, even as the White House protests were ongoing, the U.S. State Department issued a favorable environmental assessment concluding that the project would create “no significant impacts” to natural resources along the proposed route if built and operated to specifications. (It was later revealed that the State Department had contracted with a consulting firm with financial ties to TransCanada to help prepare the statement, and that the pipeline company may have received other assistance from officials to smooth the permitting process.)
Since the boos heard round the world, though, pipeline opponents have pressured Governor Dave Heineman into calling a special session of the Nebraska legislature, which convened this week, in order to assert the state’s right to insist on a route that avoided the Sandhills and the majority of the Ogallala Aquifer. More importantly, opponents may have had an impact on President Obama himself. Just this week, on the eve of a Sunday White House where thousands are expected to protest the pipeline, Obama backed away from his earlier year-end deadline for a ruling on the project, now saying it could be “several months” before the State Department completes its analysis. In an interview with Omaha KETV’s Rob McCartney, Obama pledged not to put the Ogallala Aquifer at risk. “We want to be sure we’re taking the long view on these issues,” he said.
It’s a message sure to resonate with Sandhills ranchers -- many of whom have scratched a living from their land for generations and fear now that TransCanada is only interested in quick profits. To them, allowing TransCanada to ply its message on the mammoth HuskerVision screen before an assembled crowd of 85,000 Nebraska fans was incredibly short-sighted.
Tom Osborne knew even before he saw it that the TransCanada promotion could be trouble. Back in April, when IMG College, Nebraska’s sports marketing partner, first contracted with the Canadian company, Osborne was uneasy about the potential implications. Nebraska was sure to be a battleground over the pipeline, and Osborne (who had parlayed his football fame into a Congressional seat in 2000 and fell just short of the Republican nomination for governor in 2006 before becoming the university’s athletic director) wanted to steer clear of such controversy. “So I told them that I wanted to be sure to see the ads before they were aired,” Osborne told me last week, speaking by phone from his office in his first detailed interview about the controversy. But after insisting on that prior approval, he “let it go.”
On the day before the home opener against the University of Tennesee-Chattanooga, as he sat watching a run-through of the HuskerVision screen’s planned programming, the TransCanada corporate logo appeared on screen over an image of Memorial Stadium, emblazoned with the words “Husker Pipeline.” “Clearing the trenches for one of the most potent offenses in college football history,” a deep-voiced narrator intoned, “the 1995 Husker Pipeline raised the profile of the NU offensive line to legendary status across the college football landscape.” Osborne bristled at the imagery of trenches and pipelines -- “I didn’t like the subliminal message that was being sent,” he told me -- and most of all, he was worried that the ad implied an endorsement by former players, when, in fact, none had been sought out for permission.
Osborne told me he was “kind of offended” by what he saw, but the season opener was the next day, and the entire slate of programming for the HuskerVision screen was set. “It was a little bit late to be pulling something,” he said, “so I went ahead with it.” The next day, from his end zone box, Osborne listened hard for fan reaction. “It was kind of quiet,” he told me, which seemed, to him, out of character. Fans usually erupt in cheers for footage from those years. But it seemed to pass quietly, unnoticed, and Osborne thought maybe he had been unduly worried.
Maybe Osborne couldn’t hear from where he sat, but the student-run Daily Nebraskan noted that the ad “was roundly booed by the student section” -- and pointed out that some students in attendance had only recently returned from the protests in Washington, D.C., where they had been arrested outside the White House. The paper published an editorial decrying the advertisement. “The Daily Nebraskan urges all outfits strongly affiliated with the state or its public institutions to reconsider accepting funding from TranscCanada in the near future,” the editors wrote.
But the next week against Fresno State, the advertisement played a second time. This time the reaction was louder—and spread well beyond the student section. Even from where he sat, Osborne could hear it: Husker fans booing. “It became clear that, far from the successful advertisement TransCanada must have envisioned in April,” the Daily Nebraskan reported, “the ‘Pipeline’ spot had backfired.”
As the boos rained down at Memorial Stadium, Jane Zatechka groaned. “Oh, come on, there’s only one Pipeline,” she said to her husband Doug, who spent more than three decades as housing director for the university before retiring earlier this year. In the way of things in Nebraska, their middle son Rob was a classmate of mine in high school at Lincoln East, and their youngest son Jon was a student of my father’s in a biology class at the university; Rob and Jon also combined for eight years on the Nebraska offensive line during the nineties, accounting for all three championship years. So Doug and Jane weren’t too happy to see the legendary Pipeline turned into a marketing scheme.
Doug described himself as ambivalent about the Keystone XL project itself -- he doesn’t necessarily trust TransCanada, he said, but he’s also suspicious of the dire predictions of many environmental groups. If the concerns about leaks could be addressed satisfactorily, or if an alternate route could be proposed, Doug said he didn’t necessarily oppose the project -- but he did object to TransCanada trying to persuade Nebraskans by trading on the tradition of the offensive line both his sons had played on.
“It implies that the Pipeline offense was strong. It was good. It was superior. It was untouchable. It was everything that reflected strength and Nebraska tradition and went right to the core of what we are as a state. And here’s another pipeline! So I think it’s trying to equate the strength of the values that the state would hold for that Pipeline of the nineties, when our kids played, with the strength of this pipeline.” It implied an endorsement of Keystone XL, he said, and that “should not have come about without the permission of those people being shown there.”
Rob, my former classmate, declined to be interviewed, but he did respond to e-mails. “I was at the Fresno State-NU football game,” he wrote, “but never did see the TransCanada commercial.” He went to the game that night with a co-worker, he told me, both of them wrangling their seven-year-old sons, and they left early to get the boys to bed. He said that, not having personally witnessed what unfolded when the ad played, he didn’t want to comment -- “other than to say I’d prefer not to have any innuendo of supportive association to the Keystone XL pipeline.”
Jane Kleeb, the director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, started getting texts and Twitter updates even before the Fresno State game had ended. “We weren’t surprised that the fans booed the TransCanada ad,” Kleeb told me. She had seen opposition to the stadium ad building in online discussion forums following the Chattanooga game -- but she didn’t know the content of the HuskerVision spot until after the Fresno State game. “We knew TransCanada was running ads,” she told me. “We didn’t know they were running an ad with the subliminal message of ‘TransCanada’s pipeline is Nebraska’s Pipeline.’” Kleeb seized on the idea of allowing fans to speak back to the ads in a way that would not only be audible inside the stadium but also visible to a national television audience. The next day she called Cody Butler.
Kleeb had met Butler a few years before at a conference for local entrepreneurs. He and his two younger brothers, all born and raised in Hastings, Nebraska, had come up with an idea for a foam hand holding up three fingers into what they dubbed “The CornFinger.” The novelty caught on with fans and became popular around Memorial Stadium. Kleeb wanted to know what it would cost to have some of his foam fingers made up with slogans opposing the pipeline, like “No Oil in Our Soil” and “Stop the TransCanada Pipeline.” The idea was to hand out a thousand of them to students and fans entering the University of Washington game in Lincoln that upcoming Saturday. When the TransCanada ad appeared on screen, the students, strategically placed near television cameras, would lift their foam fingers and boo in unison. “We were walking a fine line,” Kleeb acknowledged. “We didn’t want to piss off a bunch of football folks. Football games are sacred to Nebraskans.”
Bold Nebraska also started an online petition and encouraged its mailing list to call Osborne’s office to urge him to pull the ad. By Tuesday, the message was clearly getting through. Osborne called a meeting with IMG College to discuss striking a deal to cancel the university’s contract with TransCanada. And the next day, he issued a statement, announcing that the ads would no longer be played at games. “Over the last two or three months, the pipeline issue has been increasingly politicized,” he wrote. “Our athletic events are intended to entertain and unify our fan base by providing an experience that is not divisive.”
Jeff Rauh, TransCanada’s spokesman from Wisconsin-based Neil Palmer & Associates, aired his disappointment publicly -- but promised to “redeploy” the returned fees for the unaired ads to charitable causes in Nebraska. Neither Rauh nor Shawn Howard, a TransCanada corporate spokesman, returned repeated phone calls for this article, and Osborne said that, to his knowledge, no donations had yet been made by TransCanada. He preferred to stick to the simple truths. “We take responsibility for the fact that the ads were aired at all,” Osborne said, “at the same time that we take responsibility that we pulled them.”
“As I told the people at TransCanada,” he said, “we’re not trying to take one side or the other, but we simply don’t like our players’ images being used in a way that’s not totally honest.”
Last Friday, on a crystal-clear day in Lincoln, Jane Kleeb and her “ragtag rebel alliance” (to use Kleeb’s favored descriptor, cribbed from Star Wars) set up for a press conference in the rotunda of the State Capitol building. I chatted with Ben Gotschall, a rancher and pipeline opponent, who was on hand but not speaking that day because he had to leave early for his grandmother’s birthday in Columbus. He marveled at how much had been accomplished in the six weeks since the unexpected victory at Memorial Stadium -- a quiet coup achieved even before Bold Nebraska handed out the first CornFinger.
Despite Osborne’s insistence that pulling the ads shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of the anti-pipeline cause, Bold Nebraska seized on the move. With word circulating that TransCanada would be busing union pipefitters wearing fluorescent green and orange T-shirts to the State Department hearings about the pipeline in Lincoln and Atkinson, Kleeb called on her supporters to attend in “Husker red” to “thank Coach Osborne who recently kicked TransCanada ads out of Memorial Stadium.” It worked; in a state where a small opposition had slowly grown into a quiet majority, people seemed to be looking for a simple way to express solidarity. Nebraskans wearing Husker red arrived at those hearings in droves.
In the month since, Governor Heineman reluctantly called the special session -- amid warnings from TransCanada that any resulting legislation might meet with costly lawsuits and other legal challenges. Kleeb called last Friday’s press conference to keep up the pressure and to implore Nebraskans to urge their state senators not to back down. “We’ve got the special session,” Gotschall told me. “Now we’ve got to make clear that we won’t settle for anything less than a re-routing.”
On Sunday, Gotschall, Kleeb, and other activists sponsored by Bold Nebraska will be back in Washington. They will join the thousands of protestors from all over the country expected to ring the White House. But the contingent from Nebraska should be easy enough to pick out: they will be wearing Husker red, carrying CornFingers, and booing the pipeline that polls show a majority of Nebraskans now oppose, not the one they've cheered for years.