THE XL PIPELINE'S ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST
Charles P. Pierce, Esquire Magazine
t has gone right into being summer here this year. It has been a time of low, flat heat during the day, and glowering purple skies in the evening, and warning sirens in the dead of night. Flowers that don't usually bloom until June are in full blossom, and the butterflies have come early. Randy Thompson's spread in this unincorporated piece of land just south of Lincoln off Highway 77 is bright and alive and about six weeks ahead of schedule. The downrunning sidehill property has a straight view down through the pastureland to the spire of the Nebraska state capitol building, one of the few skyscraper capitols in the country. Randy Thompson stands in the kitchen of his house and gazes down through the green miles, through the lowering haze of the morning. "You know," he says, "I used to like that view. Don't like it much anymore."
Against anyone's expectations, including his own, Randy has become the face of local resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline, the massive project aimed at bringing oil from the tar-sands moonscape of Alberta, down through the heart of the American plains, to refineries on the Gulf coast of Texas. He is big and burly, a cattle-buyer who looks as though he could make his purchases and carry them personally to whoever had ordered them. By his own admission, Randy is a Republican and, for years, a resolutely apolitical one. "I guess I'm kind of an accidental activist," he says. "I did it because it needed to be done. Some people asked me to do it and I said, 'If you think it's important, if you need a face to rally around, I'll do it.' " Since then, Thompson has testified before the Nebraska legislature. He has testified before Congress. He has testified before members of the State Department. (Because the pipeline crosses the border, the State Department has to pass on the project, too.) He has written letters. His face appears on T-shirts and on hats sold by an organization called Bold Nebraska, which has been fighting the construction of the pipeline for more that five years.
"I noticed Randy at some of the meetings," says Jane Kleeb, the organization's executive director. "At the second meeting where I saw him, I asked him to come have a soda with me. I knew immediately he'd be the perfect spokesman. If you offered Randy a million dollars, he wouldn't take it."
Since then, Randy has watched as the Keystone XL pipeline has become an article of faith within the national Republican party, so much so that Willard Romney, the party's presumptive nominee, said last week that he'd be glad to start digging the trench for it himself. ("Him with a shovel in his hands," Randy laughs. "I'd buy a ticket to see that.") He's also seen the pipeline become a flashpoint for the national environmental movement to the point where protesters against the project were arrested at the White House, and the president has delayed granting TransCanada the permit they need to proceed. He's seen the Nebraska state government roll over for TransCanada time and time again. But, mostly, he's found himself caught between what he used to believe about the government, and what he's seen it do in practice.
"I entered the fight to start with because I believe very strongly in our rights as American citizens to own property and not have other people taking it for their personal gain. Then, I broadened it as I found out more about the project and about the stuff that's going to be coming through the pipeline, and that all our rivers and streams have been put at risk."
Randy Thompson watched the government stand by, largely idle, while TransCanada bullied him and his neighbors with threatening letters, stonewalled about the effect of leaks on the fragile Sandhills region of Nebraska, and on the Ogallala aquifer, the massive underground reservoir, already imperiled by drought in some places, that services most of the arable farmland in the country, and through which the proposed pipeline will pass. He's laughed at the preposterous promises of an economic boom; at one point, TransCanada promised that the pipeline would provide 100,000 new jobs. It later was revealed that these jobs included employment in the "entertainment" industry that would spring up along the pipeline's route. "Strippers," Randy says. "They're talking about strippers. And temporary strippers at that."
He's had his eyes opened, Randy has, to the nexus of money and power that has corrupted our politics and led to the estrangement of the government from the people who are supposed to govern themselves. "The people who were supposed to be looking out for us," he says. "They were looking out for them." Once, while waiting to testify in Washington...
It all began in the fall of 2007, when a nice young man from a company called TransCanada got in touch with Randy about some land that Randy's family owned up in Merrick County, about 100 miles north of Martell, where he lives. Randy's parents had saved for years and finally bought the land in 1975. His mother was still living there at the time. Randy met the young man, who explained to him that TransCanada wanted to run a portion of the pipeline through the land, which is located for the most part on an island in the South Platte River.
"They were going to be very accommodating," Randy recalls. "The young man just briefly explained what they were thinking about putting this pipeline in. He said it was a Canadian company, so we were kind of, 'What the hell, this is a foreign company. What can they do?' They asked if they could come on the land and do a survey and I said, if you want to waste your time, go ahead, but you're still not coming across our land.
"That was a huge mistake. I never should have let them on the property at all."
From the start, Thompson was dubious about the whole thing. He asked if they could re-route the pipeline around his fields, so that there wouldn't be any danger of sinkholes forming in the middle of his crops. If they did that, he admits today, he might have signed the paper and let them bring the pipeline through. Instead, they told him that they "couldn't make 90-degree turns in their pipeline," a claim Thompson didn't quite believe. But his real concern was water.
"Being an island in the river," he explains, "we got really sandy soil and a very high water table. We got places where there's water standing on the ground. Out there on that land, if you drill down four feet, you hit water. In the spring, if I dig a post-hole three feet, I hit water. They're going to bury this thing four feet in the ground. That means it's going to be underwater, and they're telling me there's no risk? I've got an irrigation well that would be a few hundred feet from the pipeline, and a livestock watering pond. If it leaks into the water, what are we supposed to do? They make all those claims - they'll clean it up and all. Well, that's bullshit. We didn't even know what they wer putting in there. We know it's toxic."
Once the young man left, Thompson got on the computer and set himself to the task of learning about the project, and about the substance which TransCanada was so hellbent in carrying across his property. The more he learned about the toxic soup, the less he liked it. People called it the dirtiest carbon-based fuel in the world, and said that it was an ecological disaster from the moment it was literally boiled up out of the earth all the way to when it was refined and sold. He knew that the company already had run one pipeline through Nebraska which, not being an oil-producing state, never had any need to pass laws to do things like regulate oil pipelines. That one already had leaked 14 times, and there were people over in Seward who were fearful because of the proximity of that first pipeline to the town's municipal water supply. The first thing he did was formally rescind the permission he'd given the company to survey his land. His resistance to the project hardened the more he learned, and then TransCanada started playing hardball, and pissed him off for good.
The first letter came a couple of years ago. "They sent us this letter and it said, this is our final offer and, if you don't accept it, we're gonna take you to eminent-domain court," he recalls. He was stunned. How could a foreign corporation take his land through eminent domain? It didn't seem right to him, so he wrote a letter to the office of Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman with his questions and concerns. The governor's office shined him on.
"I asked a serious question - whether this company had the right to take me to eminent-domain court," Thompson says, "and he sends me back a damn form letter about the pipeline. I had a serious problem that needed to be addressed, and he sends me a damn form letter? That was when me, my brother, and my sister decided that they could go straight to hell. We're not signing anything until you get a damn permit for your project. They never did anything about it. They kept calling. It was three or four years of constant pestering.
"In the summer of 2010, we got another letter, saying the same thing. It was almost the same letter, but the arrogance was turned down a bit. I wrote them a rather lengthy letter saying exactly what I thought of them and their company. I got a few more contacts, and I started talking to some senators; [U.S.] Senator Mike Johanns stepped up and told them, 'You guys have got to stop bullying our landowners out there.' By then, I'd gotten involved with Jane and a lot of other people." Thompson also took his case to the media, here and in Canada, sharing with various reporters his correspondence with TransCanada. "Whatever the reason," he says. "They quit doing that crap. They knew they were on thin ice here."
The last contact Thompson had with TransCanada was just about a year ago, on May 23. He was supposed to go to Washington and testify again, but he missed his flight. That morning, he got word that his mother had passed away on the property up in Merrick County. He was just beginning to process the news when, with spectacularly bad timing, a TransCanada official called him to ask about the property again. Thompson blew him up. Then, a day or so later, at his mother's funeral, he saw that TransCanada had sent a bouquet. Thompson told the funeral director to throw the flowers away.
"I'd say the odds are stacked against us," says Randy Thompson, as we walk toward his barn while swallows dart and dance above us. He's seen the Nebraska state legislature do remarkable things in order to keep the project alive. When they opponents forced a special session of the famous unicameral legislature to address Nebraska's sudden need for regulations regarding oil pipelines, Thompson liked the bill the session produced, even though it contained an exemption for TransCanada. "It really had some teeth to it," he recalls. "There really were some protections for landowners in it." Then, the president denied TransCanada the permit. This should have eliminated the exemption for the company that had been built into the new law, and make TransCanada subject to the new regulatory regime.
"They decided they couldn't do that, so they tried to put through a bill, LB-1161, to make TransCanada exempt from new law. They brought it out of committee and found out it was totally unconstitutional, so they kept tinkering and amending. It was like a circus up there." TransCanada executives and lobbyists were all over the place. Finally, it was decided that the easiest thing to do was to defang the new law that had been passed in the first place, and that's what they did.
"I couldn't believe they'd do that," Thompson says. "What they did in the first bill was to say that, in order for any pipeline to get eminent domain, it had to have a federal permit - that at least they had to have a permit to be in our country. The new bill is written so the governor makes that decision. And he doesn't seem to give a shit. He says, well, the polls say 70 percent of Nebraskans support the building of this pipeline, but what happens when you give them the truth about it, instead of what the politicians and the oil companies say. What does the U.S. get from this? We charge them nothing to come across our whole country and then they refine it and ship to to a tax-free export zone. What the hell do we get? Some property taxes and some strippers for three or four months.
"Our political leaders have presented this so dishonestly. It's about energy security? Bullshit. The oil's not even guaranteed to stay in this country. It's going out on the open market. They come out with polls saying Americans want this pipeline. Yeah, because they've heard all this bullshit. How many politicians have this coming through their backyard?"
(In Kansas, thanks to that state's legislature, they don't even get the property taxes. In 2006, in response to threats by TransCanada to bypass the state entirely, Kansas adopted a law partially exempting TransCanada from paying state property taxes. This came to light only this year and there was mild hell to pay. What is the matter with Kansas, anyway?)
Randy's two horses move sluggishly as the midday heat begins to come down on the land like a hammer on an anvil. One of them, his old roping horse, got kicked in the head a while back and lost an eye. We spend a little time in the barn and then walk back uphill toward the house. It is somewhat revelatory to someone from a place where land is a parcel on which your house sits to hear someone talk about the land as though it is something so very much more than a commodity to be bartered and sold, and traded, and, without any real explanation, lost. Down through the long green cut, through the thickening haze of the day, the Nebraska state capitol looks hazier and less distinct, and far distant from the concerns of the land.