Tar Sands Showdown in the Nebraska Sandhills

By Ted Genoways

September 30, 2011

At a heated hearing in the heart of Cornhusker country, one cowboy poet gives local outrage an eloquent voice

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.”


Robert Jones, director of the Keystone XL pipeline project, insists that the risk of leaks is minimal. TransCanada rented the wood-paneled backroom of Baler’s, a restaurant on the main drag in Atkinson, to hold a pre-hearing press conference -- and combat what they called “fear-mongering” by pipeline opponents (though the restaurant was closed to the public and wait staff was instructed not to talk to the press). Jones sat at the head of the party room, dressed in jeans and a pressed Oxford, and he seemed weary of arguing that the pipeline would be safe. “The Platte Pipeline,” Jones pointed out, “has been operating in Nebraska -- parallels the Platte River, goes through the heart of the Ogallala Aquifer -- since 1952, safely and reliably delivering over 50 million barrels of oil each year.”

Of course, that number is partly the point. The proposed Keystone XL line would be delivering six times the flow of the Platte Pipeline through a pipe nearly twice as wide and under considerably higher pressure. The integrity of the TransCanada line, in short, would be under much greater stress. But, more to the point, the Platte Pipeline has not been operating “safely” for nearly sixty years; in 1981, a section near Glenrock, Wyoming, ruptured and spilled over 8,500 barrels of oil, contaminating nearly 70 miles of the North Platte River. Art Hovey, the reporter for the Lincoln Journal-Star who has most doggedly covered the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, wrote a story about the thirty-year-old spill back in March, but, with Hovey sitting not ten feet in front of him at Baler’s, Jones several times invoked the Platte Pipeline as an example of safety.

Perhaps Jones discounts the 1981 spill because it was caused by what the industry calls “a third-party downage”: a construction crew hit the pipe while digging phone lines, thus it was not a structural flaw that was to blame. That’s cold comfort to the ranchers around Atkinson, who are more apt to focus on the two days it took the company to report the spill (according to the Proceedings of the American Petroleum Institute). Jones said such a spill would be unlikely -- even in the Sandhills, where blowouts would stand to easily expose shallow pipe -- because the pipe would be coated with a two- to four-inch conduit of concrete, which, he said, “helps with third-party downage.” (Pipeline opponents told me this was news to them and was not included in TransCanada’s proposal.) Jones also said that Keystone XL would have “over 16,000 sensors that send signals to a control center 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The data is refreshed every five seconds. And if there is a problem, the pipeline shuts off automatically, and the flow stops within minutes.”

When the press conference broke up, Heidi Tillquist, an environmental toxicologist from Fort Collins, Colorado, hired as an expert advocate by TransCanada, approached the table where I was sitting with another environmental reporter. She seemed eager to make the case that Keystone XL would be ecologically sound. She echoed TransCanada’s docket in response to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which argues that while “localized groundwater contamination can result from the presence of free crude oil and the migration of its dissolved constituents,” this poses a minor threat because “crude oil is less dense than water and would tend to form a floating pool after reaching the groundwater surface.”

“It sits there on top,” Tillquist explained. “Oil sits on the water. And it still takes time even then for the dissolved constituents to come out. It’s these dissolved constituents that can come out over time and start moving with the groundwater. Again, it gives Keystone quite a bit of time.” Tillquist drew fire when she made this very argument in Lincoln on Tuesday, after pipeline opponents pointed out that the “dissolved constituents” are chemicals, the identity of which TransCanada protects as a trade secret. There is literally no way to test their assurance that these chemicals will take a long time to dissolve into the groundwater, because they won’t even say what they are. But Tillquist wasn’t planning to speak at the town-hall meeting in Atkinson -- nor was anyone else from TransCanada.

Jones said TransCanada would be listening to the ranchers at the session. “This is their chance to speak,” he said.


By the time Ben Gotschall rose to speak, number 67 on the list, the hearing had been going on for hours. It was after eight o’clock, and the crowd was growing restless as the session approached its second scheduled intermission to give the court reporter a chance to take a break. The State Department officials, ensconced behind a folding table on the elevated stage (under banners from the schools in the NENAC Conference -- the Creighton Bulldogs, the Crofton Warriors, the West Holt County Huskies) had begun cutting time at the podium from five minutes to three and issuing repeated requests for the crowd to hold its applause in order to allow more people to speak. In a night that had begun with such tense emotion, everyone had begun to feel the repetition and tedium of a seven-hour open session.

“I am a fourth-generation rancher from here in the Sandhills of Holt County,” Ben began. “I graduated from high school in this building on that stage where you’re sitting right now, as did a lot of other people in this room. I am here because I believe that this proposed pipeline route poses a serious risk to the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer. This pipeline is not in our national interest.

“TransCanada and their supporters say that we who are opposed to this pipeline are unreasonable, extremist, fear-mongers,” he continued. “They accuse us of being misguided and of spreading half-truths. They accuse us of being emotional. Well, if we are emotional, it is because this pipeline threatens our water, our health, our homes, and our way of life. If we are misguided and spreading half-truths, it is because TransCanada has misguided us and told us only half the truth.”

The room erupted in applause, which Ben quickly waved away and continued.

“I have been to Marshall, Michigan, and have seen the damage done by the Enbridge tar sands oil spill in July 2010 that has contaminated 40 miles of the Kalamazoo watershed. Anyone who says diluted bitumen will float doesn’t know what they are talking about. Over a year later, large amounts of oil still remained on the bottoms of streams. I saw it. I smelled it. I got it on my boots, and it doesn’t wash off.

“Anyone who says diluted bitumen isn’t a threat to water is lying. There are people in Marshall who are sick. There are people in Marshall who are dying from exposure to unknown chemicals. There are people in Marshall who have seen the dumpsters full of dead birds, the semi-trailers full of dead animals that were killed by drinking the water, and have seen their neighbors, one by one, come down with rare disorders and cancers. We need to know what chemicals make up the diluent in diluted bitumen. That information is in the national interest, and suppressing it, as TransCanada has done, is a threat to our national security.”

Again, the crowed cheered its approval, and Ben waved them away again, more fiercely this time. He rejected the claim of fear-mongering by pipeline opponents, he said.

“I think it is TransCanada who is afraid. They are afraid that all the money they have spent on ad campaigns can’t buy them truth. They are afraid that all the money they have spent on lobbyists and orange T-shirts and buses can’t buy them consent. They are afraid because they can’t buy our trust and they have done nothing to earn it. They are afraid because we refuse to believe that their profits are more important than our basic human rights.”

From the stage, the State Department official leaned into her mic: “Can you please wrap up your comments?”

“Yes, I can,” Ben said -- but then, someone from the crowd shouted, “Let him speak!” And then another. And another. It became a choir.

“The water in this aquifer might be important to us,” he started, “but soon it will be important to the world ...”

Before he could go any further, a woman from the crowd reached up and slapped another number -- number 70 -- onto Ben’s chest, ceding him another three minutes of time. The crowd roared its approval, some standing to applaud. And Ben began again to speak.


Ben Gotschall after speaking at Keystone XL hearingNear midnight, Ben and some other organizers for Bold Nebraska sat around a cluster of tables in the center of the Someplace Else Bar, directly next door to Baler’s. Mounted deer heads and boar’s heads (one wearing a seed cap) covered one wall, and a Budweiser light in the shape of a NASCAR racer hung over the pool table. The bar itself was dotted by red-wearing refugees from the gymnasium; now planted on Naugahyde barstools, they hailed Ben on entry. One guy, about Ben’s age and more than half in the bag, asked, “Which Gotschall are you?”

“You know which Gotschall I am,” Ben said, cracking a wily grin. “We used to work together you son of a bitch.”

“Shit, I can’t remember,” the man said, and everyone laughed.

After Ben refreshed his memory and made the rounds to the other men there, he plunked down beside me, a bottle of Coors in hand.

“So do you think it went all right?” he asked. He doesn’t look at me -- a brand of Midwestern modesty I know well -- when I tell him that he was the emotional core of the evening, that I’d even seen Wendy Nassmacher, the State Department spokeswoman who had reamed out the event organizers earlier, sidle up to him late in the evening to encourage him to keep at this, which I took to mean not only the pipeline fight but activism in general. I told him he did good.

Ben deflected. “You know this was my grandpa’s favorite bar?” he said. “When he sold out at the ranch and moved to town, he bought into the old Stockman’s Hotel across the street.”

“He didn’t have far to stumble,” he added with a grin. But then he circled around to his point.

“Every morning he worked at the sale barn as a cattle buyer” -- the same sale barn where he’d slept through the blizzard on his first night in Atkinson as a boy -- “then he’d go play cards at the Round-Up down the street in the afternoons and come here after that. He liked to spread himself around. When he died they had to have the funeral at the community center, so many people turned out. But you know what person after person told me? ‘He made me money.’ That’s an unusual thing for a middleman. He didn’t sell them shit cattle at a big profit for himself. He bought good cows for them, and everyone made money.”

This may be the simplest articulation of the Sandhills language of honesty I’ve ever heard. Do right, and you’ll do well. And people will speak well of you long after you’re gone and your land has passed to the next generation and the next and the next. It’s a hard standard to live up to, but TransCanada would do well to understand that they will never be welcome in Sandhills country until the ranchers who live there feel they’re being treated fairly. Otherwise, mistrust will spread like a plume through the groundwater, upwelling and branching across the state. There’s a petition to call a special session of the Nebraska legislature to vote for a rerouting of the pipeline around the Sandhills. It could well pass, and it could spell the end -- or at least a significant delay -- to the whole Keystone XL project.

For the moment, at least, the opposition had found an eloquent advocate. We piled into Ben’s Dodge pickup and headed south toward his family home place. It was past one o’clock, and Ben only had a few hours before he had to turn around and come back to Atkinson. By eight a.m. this morning, he was back at West Holt High -- encouraging a classroom of students to educate themselves about the pipeline and then add their voices to his.