November 12, 2011
by Sheldon Alberts
WASHINGTON — In making their case for approval of the Keystone XL oilsands pipeline, Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. and the Canadian government believed they had an argument so compelling the Obama administration wouldn’t think twice about saying yes.
The promise of roughly 20,000 “shovel-ready” jobs in an economy sputtering to life after the Great Recession? Keystone XL would deliver.
A stable, secure and “ethical” source of oil for a nation dependent on Middle East crude? Again, Keystone XL to the rescue.
In the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the pipeline decision would be a “complete no-brainer” for President Barack Obama.
Except for this: TransCanada and the Harper government never counted on Bruce Boettcher and Bill McKibben.
Boettcher, a plain-spoken cattle rancher from the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and McKibben, arguably America’s foremost environmental author, have probably never laid eyes on each other.
But in ways both tangible and symbolic, they represent the primary reason Keystone XL today sits in limbo, at risk of never carrying a single barrel of oilsands crude to Gulf Coast refineries.
Why? The battle over the 2,700-kilometre pipeline was fought through the past year over two very different fronts — on the grassy plains of the Cornhusker State and in the corridors of power on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
TransCanada and its allies in Ottawa were bloodied, and ultimately beaten, because they underestimated the strength and determination of their opponents in both places.
In Nebraska, TransCanada brought a boardroom mentality to a rural, ruggedly individualistic ranching culture.
Before the company had reason to believe Keystone XL would get the go-ahead, it began obtaining right-of-way easements from land owners.
When ranchers balked, TransCanada responded the way big companies sometimes do — by threatening legal action to condemn their land.
Now, Nebraskans are some of the most politically conservative voters in America, Republican to the core. But they are not Wall Street conservatives.
Many families have been on their land for decades and are conservationists who strike a delicate balance between agricultural production and environmental preservation.
They are naturally suspicious of outsiders, whether they come from Washington or the glass towers of a foreign corporation.
TransCanada’s mistake was in playing rough with landowners who had no stake in seeing their property used as a thru-way to ship oil and profits from Alberta to Texas.
Bruce Boettcher was typical of pipeline opponents. In late September, Boettcher drove four hours from his ranch in the Sand Hills to Lincoln, the state capital, to speak at a public hearing on Keystone XL.
Boettcher expressed a common complaint. He didn’t like the way TransCanada did business. And he didn’t trust the company to be a proper steward of the land the pipeline would cross.
“They’re asking to build a pipeline in our country,” Boettcher said in an interview at the time. “So they need to respect the American people.”
It was ranchers like Boettcher — unyielding in their opposition — who ultimately forced Nebraska’s Republican governor, Dave Heineman, to call a special session of the state legislature and confront TransCanada over its proposed route.
In Washington, TransCanada’s troubles began with the Gulf oil spill and the rupture of rival Enbridge’s pipeline on Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010.
Both disasters provided a spark of energy to the U.S. environmental movement.
Canada had the “ethical oil” argument. But the idea of Canadian oil as “dirty oil” was far easier to sell to an American public traumatized by images of an underwater catastrophe and scenes of a very real pipeline disaster in the American heartland.
TransCanada and the Canadian government frequently painted environmentalists as frothy-mouthed radicals.
But the activists responsible for the anti-Keystone XL campaign are nothing like the disorganized protesters of Occupy Wall Street. Many are seasoned Washington campaigners with deep ties to congressional Democrats and the Obama campaign team.
Enter McKibben, one of the primary movers behind the White House sit-ins in August and the 10,000-person march on Nov. 6.
McKibben and other environmental leaders understood their best chance to kill — or at least delay — Keystone XL was to appeal to Obama’s anti-fossil fuel sensibilities and his political survival instincts.
“Here is what is going on,” McKibben said in a recent interview. “The president is going to make this call himself. For once Congress isn’t in the way. Everyone is doing their best to let them know we expect him to live up to his promises.”
Here’s another reality. Keystone XL’s biggest U.S. fans are business groups more likely than not to campaign against Obama in 2012. The people who demonstrated at the White House are the same folks who voted for Obama’s hope and change.
This week, the president was faced with a choice: delay the pipeline and face the wrath of an industry that doesn’t like him much anyway, or approve the pipeline and risk losing his base.
When it came down to it for Obama, the decision was a no-brainer.