Keystone XL Gets Electoral

Green candidates are cropping up all over the ‘red’ state of Nebraska.

Cole Stangler

Senate candidate David Domina of Nebraska (top right) stands with plaintiffs in the lawsuit he filed to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. (Mary Anne Andrei / Bold Nebraska)

In the eyes of polit­i­cal con­sul­tants and par­ty oper­a­tives, envi­ron­men­tal­ists in the Unit­ed States are most­ly urban­ites who sip espres­so and odd­balls who dab­ble in oth­er sub­stances. By that log­ic, America’s heart­land — much less a reli­ably red state like Nebras­ka — is no place for clean ener­gy advocates.

'I don't think Nebraskans have any emotional or financial commitment to coal. They want clean, cheap energy.'

But a slate of can­di­dates run­ning in the Corn­husker State is hop­ing to prove con­ven­tion­al wis­dom wrong. Dri­ven by the impend­ing Key­stone XL pipeline — which would cross about 250 miles of the state — clean ener­gy is on Nebraska’s elec­toral agenda.

Sev­er­al can­di­dates for office in 2014 are run­ning cam­paigns that focus on not only stop­ping the pipeline, but also putting renew­able ener­gy sources, such as wind, front and cen­ter. They’ve caught the eye of Bold Nebras­ka, an envi­ron­men­tal group that orga­nizes landown­ers and ranch­ers opposed to TransCanada’s efforts to con­demn land for the pipeline.

All of them are what we call new ener­gy can­di­dates’ that are local­ly grown and pow­ered by the pipeline fight­er spir­it,” says Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska’s direc­tor. We hope this is a clear sign that the fight against the Key­stone XL is more than stop­ping a pipeline. It’s about cit­i­zens stand­ing up to be count­ed, to be engaged and to serve as the next crop of elect­ed officials.”

Among the can­di­dates is the pre­sump­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee for U.S. Sen­ate, Dave Dom­i­na, best known for suc­cess­ful­ly lead­ing the legal fight to over­turn a 2012 emi­nent domain law that paved the way for Keystone’s pro­posed route. The Nebras­ka law shift­ed pipeline-route approval author­i­ty from the state reg­u­la­to­ry agency to the Repub­li­can governor’s office, which then drew up a new course for the project. Dom­i­na sued to over­turn the law on behalf of con­cerned landown­ers last fall. In Feb­ru­ary, in response to the suit, a coun­ty judge ruled the law uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, throw­ing a wrench into TransCanada’s plans. (The state’s attor­ney gen­er­al has since appealed the decision.)

Dom­i­na expects his defense of landown­ers’ rights and his advo­ca­cy for invest­ment in renew­able ener­gy to res­onate with vot­ers. Nebras­ka has the fourth-high­est wind ener­gy capac­i­ty in the nation, but it remains untapped. Much of the state’s ener­gy comes from coal — coal that is pro­duced not in Nebras­ka, but in Wyoming and Mon­tana, as Dom­i­na points out. I don’t think Nebraskans have any emo­tion­al or finan­cial com­mit­ment to coal,” he says. They want clean, cheap energy.”

Dom­i­na sees invest­ment in renew­ables as a com­mon­sense form of job cre­ation that goes hand in hand with his eco­nom­ic vision — a vision that harkens back to the prairie pop­ulism of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. In that tra­di­tion, Dom­i­na sup­ports break­ing up the five biggest U.S. banks. It’s the kind of prob­lem we had in the Unit­ed States 120 years ago when pow­er was way too con­cen­trat­ed in the hands of a few com­pa­nies and we had to break them up,” he says.

Mean­while, Chuck Has­se­brook, the only Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date for gov­er­nor, espous­es an envi­ron­men­tal plat­form that would put many of the party’s guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­dates in oth­er states to shame. As the for­mer direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Rur­al Affairs, an anti-pover­ty group that works to pro­tect fam­i­ly farm­ers, he calls his home state the Sau­di Ara­bia of wind” for its renew­able ener­gy potential.

Both Dom­i­na and Has­se­brook face uphill bat­tles. Nebraskans haven’t elect­ed a Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor since 2006, and a Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor since 1994. In both cas­es it was the con­ser­v­a­tive-lean­ing Ben Nel­son. The last Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to car­ry the state was Lyn­don John­son in 1964. But Dom­i­na isn’t dis­cour­aged. He points to the state’s large swath of inde­pen­dent vot­ers as evi­dence that par­ty affil­i­a­tion does­n’t mat­ter as much as platform.

The most winnable races, how­ev­er, are like­ly at the local lev­el. In Nebras­ka, these are all non-par­ti­san. Bold Nebras­ka is work­ing with three can­di­dates for seats on the state’s 23 dif­fer­ent Nat­ur­al Resources Dis­trict (NRD) boards, local gov­ern­ment bod­ies that deal with water and oth­er con­ser­va­tion issues.

Mag­gie Squires, a yoga instruc­tor and state sen­ate aide who’s run­ning for a seat on the NRD in Lin­coln, the state cap­i­tal, says she wants to broad­en the way these boards approach nat­ur­al resource man­age­ment. “[Lin­coln is] a huge col­lege town,” she says. The kids know that clean energy’s the way to go, the future — it’s just that we’re still cling­ing to this belief that it’s not.”

The group is also work­ing with two can­di­dates for the board of direc­tors of Nebras­ka Pub­lic Pow­er Dis­trict (NPPD), the state’s largest elec­tri­cal util­i­ty. Crit­ics claim that the 11-mem­ber elect­ed board is too friend­ly with the fos­sil fuel indus­try. In August 2013, the NPPD agreed to help finance trans­mis­sion lines that Tran­sCana­da needs for the Key­stone XL pipeline. And last Octo­ber, the board vot­ed against pur­chas­ing more wind pow­er.

One of the NPPD can­di­dates is Ben Gotschall, a ranch­er and cheese mak­er who grew up in the Sand­hills region and helped orga­nize oppo­si­tion to the Key­stone XL. He says it’s crit­i­cal to get more green voic­es on the NPPD.

We could be the nation­al leader in wind ener­gy,” Gotschall says. We just got huge untapped wind resources and all of our neigh­bor­ing states are kick­ing our butts. Our peo­ple … won­der why we can’t get on board.”

And it’s not just about the envi­ron­ment, he stress­es, but about dol­lars and cents. Elec­tric­i­ty prices in Iowa and Nebras­ka, both among the low­est in the nation, are rough­ly the same. In Iowa, though, wind pow­er pro­vides about 27 per­cent of the state’s elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion, com­pared to a pal­try 5 per­cent for Nebras­ka, its neigh­bor to the west. If Nebras­ka boost­ed its wind pow­er pro­duc­tion, Gotschall argues, then the state’s elec­tric­i­ty prices could even­tu­al­ly drop even lower.

Gotschall brush­es aside the notion that his Key­stone XL-relat­ed activism will put him at a dis­ad­van­tage. Most of the issues that I’ve been deal­ing with are very con­ser­v­a­tive issues: prop­er­ty rights, no emi­nent domain for pri­vate gain,” he says. But the so-called con­ser­v­a­tives haven’t been stand­ing up for that issue here in our state, so the peo­ple have had to stand up for them­selves. And I think I’m an exam­ple of that.”

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Fol­low him @colestangler.
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