Rural Nebraska could once again help decide the fate of Keystone XL

Feb. 9, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Jeanne Crumly and her husband are part of the 5th generation in their family to farm in Holt County, Nebraska. She believes Keystone XL would threaten the water supply their farm depends on. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Listen To This Story

President Trump gave new momentum to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline when he took office. But the final say on whether it is built may lie in the Midwest. Landowners in a rural part of Nebraska promise to put a kink in the president’s plans.

Jeanne Crumly’s introduction to the Keystone XL oil pipeline came seven years ago. That’s when she learned the 36-inch pipe could someday be carrying up to 830,000 barrels of heavy crude through her land each day on its way from Hardisty, Alberta to a pipeline hub at Steele City, Nebraska.

“The pipeline would be about 400 yards north of my house, running through a creek out here where cattle water and where we draw irrigation water,” Crumly said.

Crumly’s family raises cattle and corn in Holt County in north central Nebraska. They draw water for thirsty crops and livestock from the High Plains Aquifer, an underground reservoir she calls the lifeblood of their operation.

Keystone XL would run through land that lies above that water supply. The company in charge of the project, TransCanada, says pipelines are safer than hauling oil by train and that it will accept the legal responsibility to clean up any possible damage.

More stories from NET News and Harvest Public Media:

More than 100 people gathered at the O’Neill Community Center to talk about how they would oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

But for Crumly, an oil leak on her land is something she can’t afford.

“For our agricultural purposes, the purity of the water is essential,” Crumly said. “And it’s the thing that probably is driving the resistance.”

The last time Keystone XL was up for approval, she and a group of other local landowners sued to block TransCanada from seizing land by eminent domain. And in 2015, it looked like that resistance had paid off when the Obama White House rejected the project.

“It was a sweet victory,” Crumly said. “But I’m a realist too. I knew it was a victory but I didn’t believe the battle was over.”

She was right. Four days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump revived the project. At a signing ceremony in the Oval Office he issued an executive order directing the State Department to approve the pipeline within 60 days. TransCanada submitted a new application January 26.

Now Crumly and dozens of like-minded landowners in this farming and ranching community are reviving their resistance. They gathered at the Community Center in the Holt County seat of O’Neill, Nebraska recently to talk strategy with other pipeline opponents.

Keystone XL could be approved at the federal level by the end of March. But Jane Kleeb of the anti-pipeline group, Bold Alliance, told those at the meeting TransCanada still must have two things from Nebraska: a route approved by the state’s Public Service Commission, and contracts with all landowners on the route, acquired either voluntarily or through eminent domain.

“We certainly don’t have someone in the White House right now that we think we can influence a lot, but we think we can stop it here in the state,” Kleeb said.

Attorney Brian Jorde discusses legal issues with landowners in O’Neill, Nebraska. Landowners here have challenged TransCanada’s ability to use eminent domain to force construction of Keystone XL on their property. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Jane Kleeb of Bold Alliance gained notoriety as a political organizer leading opposition to Keystone XL in Nebraska. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

There will be other stall tactics, including federal lawsuits challenging Trump’s executive order and legal complaints from Indian tribes in South Dakota. But Nebraska landowners could be an important obstacle.

“Keystone XL can’t be built without eminent domain,” said Sara Shor of the climate change activism group, which opposes the pipeline. “But even after that, landowners are planning further legal challenges. If we stop the route through Nebraska we stop the pipeline.”

The pipeline does have supporters in Nebraska. Governor Pete Ricketts has touted the potential construction jobs and tax revenue.

There are supporters in Holt County for the same reasons. Bill Tielke, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, heard from them after the board passed a resolution against Keystone XL. To his surprise, a lot of people were upset because they want the pipeline.

“I had probably more calls with people wondering why we had done the resolution than I ever did on people calling to say to do that (resolution),” Tielke said.

Politically speaking, Holt County is a deep red part of the state. Voters chose Republican Donald Trump 8 to 1 over Democrat Hilary Clinton. But at the local level, Keystone XL doesn’t break along party lines the way it does nationally.

Landowner Jeanne Crumly says the pipeline is like the elephant in the room. Both supporters and opponents are entrenched in their views, but they rarely discuss it publicly.

“We have to live in the community with our neighbors, we go to church with our neighbors, so we get along but at a superficial level,” Crumly said. “The rules of the game are that you don’t talk about something controversial.”

But now Keystone XL is back in the open. Crumly hopes it will get people in Holt County talking about the issue, even if they don’t agree, because their corner of rural Nebraska will have a lot to say about the pipeline’s fate.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story stated Keystone XL would carry 800,000 gallons of oil per day. In fact it would carry up to 830,000 barrels per day, or 34.9 million gallons. We regret the error.


Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.