by Bryce Wergin
The locusts are starting to sing and the hot, sunny day is maturing into a warm, humid evening as Randy Thompson picks up the phone. I’m concerned I’ve called too late, as the sleeping and eating schedules of a farmer/rancher surely differ greatly from those of a college student/intern. Instead, I’m warmly greeted.
"I appreciate you doing the story and all the support. How are you doing?" he says.
Thompson is a broad-shouldered, grey-haired picture of the modern cowboy who makes his living managing his family’s farm and trading cattle from Merrick County. He has spent his entire life as a farmer, rancher and cattle trader in several different parts of Nebraska. He's spent the last three years refusing offers on his land from oil corporation TransCanada, which wants to route its new pipeline through it. In the process, he's become an iconic figure behind a movement against the pipeline.
“Randy is not a liberal,” says Jane Kleeb, founder and editor of the progressive nonprofit Bold Nebraska, which is leading the fight against the pipeline. “We clearly have different views on some other political issues, but we’ve become close.”
The Keystone XL pipeline would pump 1.1 million gallons of tar sands oil each day from Alberta, Canada through Nebraska's ecologically critical Sandhills, much of its wetlands and over its Ogallala Aquifer, on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Ogallala Aquifer supplies drinking and irrigation water to the majority of Nebraska and parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Opponents say a spill could contaminate the aquifer, which could cripple irrigation — the backbone of Nebraska's agriculture-based economy.
Kleeb believes the union of a more conservative Nebraskan like Thompson with the progressive voice of Bold Nebraska proves this isn't a partisan issue. Through a grassroots marketing campaign called “I Stand with Randy,” Kleeb urges concerned citizens — ranchers, teachers, artists, students and anyone else — from across the state to help organize and participate in independently-hosted events peacefully protesting TransCanada’s pipeline during the weekend of Aug. 5-7.
“It’s been a very stressful three years,” Thompson says. “It’s like we’re in limbo — we don’t know what’s coming next.” TransCanada has threatened Thompson and countless other Nebraska landowners with property seizure through eminent domain, which they do not have the legal authority to do in the state of Nebraska. The Nebraska Sierra Club says TransCanada must first obtain all permits to build in Nebraska, and prove that a public benefit exists from the construction, which may be difficult, since TransCanada is a private company. The State Department must first grant a permit to allow the Canadian company to build in the country. The House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry from Omaha yesterday that would require the State Department to make its decision by Nov. 1. Rep. Adrian Smith from Gering was among 232 Republicans and 47 Democrats to support the bill. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln was among only three Republicans to oppose the bill, which is unlikely to gain Senate approval.
An air conditioner's loud buzz brings relief from the relentless heat as I walk into the Bold Nebraska office near downtown Lincoln to meet with Kleeb. Her desk is littered with pamphlets and documents containing statistics, figures and photographs relating to the proposed pipeline — the organization's priority issue since its inception in 2009.
“This is really about Nebraskans standing up, saying this isn’t good for our state," Kleeb says. "Do nonprofits and farmers and individuals often beat big oil? No. But we’re up for the fight, and Randy will tell you, we’re independent and bull-headed folks and we’re not just going to fold up our tent and go away.”
The mother of three devotes much of her time to educating the public on what Keystone XL is and why Nebraskans should be against it. This isn’t a paid gig — the nonprofit’s efforts are fueled by its members' passion for protecting Nebraska’s natural resources.
“This pipeline oil is not guaranteed for the United States they [Transcanada] sell it to the highest bidder. That’s the first thing,” Kleeb says. “We should also be concerned about TransCanada misleading us on job numbers and expected spill numbers. They go around in small towns and give $5,000 to the rotary club or a million to the FFA essentially to buy political favor [they're a sponsor of the Nebraska State Fair] and when you have to do that, it obviously raises questions of 'why?' They have to because it’s a risky project and they know it has a lot of downsides.”
The Keystone XL is an expansion of the already existing Keystone pipeline, which currently pumps 435,000 barrels of oil each day along Nebraska’s eastern edge when at full capacity. The Keystone XL would cut through Nebraska from the north in Keya Paha County down through Jefferson County, near Wilbur and Beatrice.
The existing Keystone pipeline has suffered 12 spills in the past 12 months. And a study by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors with expertise in groundwater flow and contamination found that the pipeline poses an unknown level of environmental and economic damage to Great Plains states.
“If you had a fire or a major blowout with the oil, getting emergency response vehicles out there would be extremely difficult,” Thompson says. “I mean, I’ve lived and worked up there, and I can tell you I’ve been stuck in four-wheel-drive pickups out in the Sandhills. But the biggest risk is to the water and stickin’ that thing right in our aquifer. [The aquifer] provides all of our irrigation water and all of our clean drinking water, too.”
Jane hopes the "I Stand With Randy" campaign will help educate the public on why this issue is non-partisan through its art events.
“In any issue I’ve been involved with, it’s always the arts community that leads," she says. "They are often the ones who are tuned in to an issue that’s critical and important way before anybody else is.”
Nebraskan artists have been inspired by Thompson, and are hosting and encouraging others to participate in events over the Aug. 5-7 weekend.
“Every little town in Nebraska has artists, and most of our citizens love art in all its forms,” says Mary Pipher, an international author and one of the brains behind "I Stand With Randy." “Also, most people don't want to go to a rally or call their senator, but almost everyone likes music and parties. I hope artists will help us start a spiral of fun and celebrate all over the state.”
“Art affects people in personal, subjective ways but can also have a unifying effect,” says Ben Gotschall, a poet originally from Holt County who has been working with Bold on the campaign. “In the same way people from many walks of life may attend the same concert or art show, many people from all across Nebraska are coming together to oppose the pipeline, even though their reasons for doing so may all be different.”
Some artists have even created pieces specifically for this campaign, like graphic designer Justin Kemerling, who created the following design after learning how many spills were to be expected in the lifetime of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“Those big issues of natural resources, energy, the environment, they can all seem so far away,” Kemerling says. “But a creative and imaginative arts community takes those issues, unexpectedly illuminates their meaning and moves people to get involved and fight to make a difference.”
Randy Thompson knows winning a fight like this can’t be done overnight. It's been a long, drawn-out process for him and his family, but the diligent Nebraskan continues his efforts for what he believes is right.
“I mean, you’re confronting a multi-billion dollar corporation here,” Randy says. “We just feel like the whole thing is totally wrong and we’re just stubborn enough or whatever, we’ve decided from the beginning that we’re gonna fight it to the end.”
Bryce Wergin is an intern for Hear Nebraska and doesn't want to get BP'd by TransCanada. He stands with Randy. Contact him at email@example.com.
*If you would like to stand with Randy and host your own event, register it for free here with Bold Nebraska..
Below is one Randy-related Lincoln event. Post yours in the comments below:
Aug. 7, Duggan's Pub (11th and K), free
4 p.m. - Kickin' Back (rock and roll music)
5 p.m. - The Hundred Miles (roots, rock & soul)
6 p.m. - The Jerry Pranksters (acoustic trio, Grateful Dead Tribute/Jam Band)
7 p.m. - The Tijuana Gigolos (americana, tex-mex, rock and roll)
8 p.m. - Lloyd McCarter and the Honky Tonk Revival (country, western, honky-tonk)
9 p.m. - Shaun Sparks and the Wounded Animals (rock, americana)