Increasingly, the focus on the Keystone XL debate is shifting from Washington, D.C. to Lincoln, Neb.
Despite the arrests of more than 1,000 protesters in front of the White House, and a letter from the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and others opposing the pipeline, a greater impact is likely to come from another group of constituents:
Nebraska football fans.
A story last week in the Lincoln Journal Star described fans at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium booing as a TransCanada-sponsored “Husker Pipeline” video played on the big screen. The outcry prompted University of Nebraska-Lincoln Athletic Director Tom Osborne to end the sponsorship agreement.
To be clear, Osborne wasn’t taking a position on the pipeline itself, he was merely acting on a policy to “avoid ads of a political nature” inside the stadium. “The athletic department has no position, either pro or con, regarding the proposed TransCanada Pipeline,” Osborne said in a statement.
Still, the rebuff by Osborne, who coached the Cornhuskers for 25 years and is one of the state’s most revered public figures, is not to be taken lightly.
Two weeks ago, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman sent a letter to the State Department calling for the pipeline to be rerouted around the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides irrigation and drinking water for much of the Great Plains. Because of the potential threat to this critical groundwater supply, a broad, bipartisan coalition is emerging in the state to oppose the pipeline.
So can Nebraska stop the pipeline? InsideClimate News, which has been covering the issue extensively, has an excellent overview of how the process could play out in the state. While the state’s congressional delegation differs over whether it’s a state or federal issue, the State Department has said that “individual states have the legal authority to approve petroleum pipeline construction in their states, including selecting the route for such pipelines.”
Nebraska, however, has no state agency assigned to regulate pipelines, and the legislature isn’t scheduled to reconvene until January, after the State Department is expected to issue its final decision on the pipeline. Some state lawmakers are pushing for an unprecedented special legislative session to deal with the issue.
The State Department’s most recent environmental impact statement estimated that rerouting the pipeline could increase costs by as much as 25 percent, potentially rendering the project economically unfeasible. Which means the Nebraska legislature could have as much power as President Obama to determine the pipeline’s fate.
The recent “Husker Pipeline” incident reveals that TransCanada may be as reviled as (dare I say it) the Colorado Buffaloes inside the walls of Memorial Stadium. While it’s not a scientific poll, it’s clear evidence that a lot of Nebraskans are concerned about the pipeline’s potential impact.
Whether this will force the issue in the legislature remains to be seen. But I’d be surprised if state lawmakers aren’t paying a lot more attention now to where their constituents stand on the pipeline.