YORK, Neb. – Nebraska pipeline opponents toasted news over the weekend that the Canadian government might be kept waiting longer for a decision on the Keystone XL project.
The group of anti-pipeline landowners met at a fairground near the epicenter of the Keystone battle to discuss strategy in a dispute that has dragged in two national governments.
As they fight their state government in court, and battle the pipeline company for better contract conditions, the holdouts are training a steady gaze on Washington in the hope the U.S. government simply rejects the long-delayed project.
They loved what they saw last week, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry slapped down a Canadian request for a decision soon.
One activist called that reaction significant.
She said Kerry, who was known as a climate-change fighter when he was a congressman, had been pretty quiet on Keystone since he took over the department leading the regulatory process.
“He has actually been silent on the issue. So the first time that we’ve actually heard from him was this week – so it was huge news,” said Jane Kleeb, a longtime Democratic party activist who is working to organize landowners against the project.
“That was really reassuring to us. Because we think the proper water studies haven’t been done. There’s a whole list of things.”
Kerry told a news conference that he would not be rushed and that the process would thoroughly undergo each procedural step.
He made the remarks while standing next to Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird.
This was after Baird used a three-day trip to Washington to express exasperation over the project’s repeated, years-long delays and demand a decision in time for the 2014 construction season.
Landowners in nearly every state on the pipeline path have already signed deals with TransCanada, the company spearheading the Alberta-to-Texas project.
Even two-thirds of those in Nebraska have agreed to terms with the company.
But the holdouts have proven to be a tenacious bunch.
They are suing their state government, seeking to overturn as unconstitutional a bill that gives the governor power to force them to let TransCanada use their land.
Should they be forced to settle, they’ve also banded together in an organization in the hope of extracting better contract terms.
A common complaint at Saturday’s meeting was about legal liability. Owners of these properties, which have often been in the family for generations, don’t want their descendants left with monstrous bills should there be a spill or if anyone accidentally damages the pipeline someday.
Jeanne Crumly gets teary-eyed just speaking about the possibility of damage to her land, which has been farmed by her husband’s family for over a century.
The news from Washington gave her cause for hope.
“Hooray,” she said of the latest remarks by Kerry.
“I hope there is a process. But I hope it’s not just rubber-stamped…
“My reaction is hesitant relief. There’s faint belief that, possibly, there is some democratic process.”
The retired schoolteacher doesn’t want the $61,000 payout offered by TransCanada.
She doesn’t trust her state government to conduct an honest environmental assessment.
And she scoffs at something else Baird said last week: that the revised pipeline map has been carefully built to avoid the aquifer that hydrates the state’s soil.
To illustrate her point, Crumly takes a reporter out to the soggy tract near Page, Ne., where her husband, Ron, grows soybeans, corn and potatoes.
She says the property is dozens of miles into the supposedly-untouched Ogallala Aquifer, and the pipeline would pass directly through it.
Her husband, Ron, says that even a small, undetected leak would be enough to spoil his crops.
Both husband and wife say they don’t have anything against Canadians.
She even reveals that when serving in the South Pacific with the Peace Corps, she stitched a Maple Leaf onto her gear because, she said, “people love Canadians.”
At Saturday’s meeting, a photo flashes up on the overhead projector. Kleeb jokes that the man in the photo is one Canadian she doesn’t like very much.
It’s a picture of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Near the screen there’s a table with T-shirts bearing anti-Keystone slogans on sale for $15.
Although the organization of landowners, the Nebraska Easement Action Team, has received thousands from the deep-pocketed Tides Foundation, there’s talk of more legal battles ahead, and the fight may be far from finished.
Near the table is a blunt-talking old farmer wearing a wildrag cowboy neckscarf.
Bruce Boettcher is griping about the “Canooks” trying to strong-arm the locals.
He’s so miffed over the attempt to dig on his property that he still drives out to the meetings, even though the latest version of pipeline route doesn’t go through his land.
And he’s got a message for the folks up north.
“They ain’t gonna get the sonofabitch through,” he said.
“It’s our inherited obligation from our ancestors to protect (our land) and we will – at all costs.”