FAIRWAY, KS — A palpable exhaustion seems to have set in this year among some journalists when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline project, which has been under review for five years. “It seems to us that we have finally reached the ‘enough already’ moment in this debate,” Bloomberg News said in an April editorial. “Enough dawdling,” said the Chicago Tribune editorial board in March. “Keystone is by now the most studied pipeline in this nation’s history,” wrote the Houston Chronicle in January.

Along the pipeline route, local editorial sentiment seems similarly tired of the debate. The Daily Oklahoman in February lamented the “1,616 days, 12 hours, 27 minutes and 57 seconds that have gone by since the permit application was filed,” and concluded: “The meter is running. It’s past time for this project to get a green light.” A January editorial in the Omaha World-Herald argued that environmental concerns have been addressed, so President Obama should go ahead already and approve the construction of the 1,700-mile, $7 billion pipeline, which would shoot 700,000 barrels a day of tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. A Lincoln Journal Star editorial in March echoed the World-Herald: “Nebraskans can be gratified that their voices were heard and that the revised pipeline project has been improved significantly from the initial proposal.”

For these editorial boards, the debate is done. Opponents were dismissed in cursory fashion: The Journal Star characterized them as “a dwindling vocal minority” who “oppose the use of fossil fuels in general.” The World-Herald summed up the opposing arguments by noting a mini-controversy over a bald eagle’s nest that would be in the pipeline’s path, calling it an “encouraging” sign that even such a minor issue was being addressed.

But, not so fast. Not only is the pipeline question unresolved, but the fight over it remains as intense as ever, if somewhat underneath the media radar. Reporters in Nebraska and nationwide have done some fine work over the years in covering the Keystone battle, and they would do well to remember that the story isn’t over. In some ways, it may be just beginning.

Lobbying behemoths

One sign of the enduring power of the issue is the intensity of pressure being brought to bear—on both sides of the question.

TransCanada, the Calgary-based company that seeks to build the pipeline, has played a major role in defining the debate, and continues to do so. The company’s lobbying for the pipeline dates at least as far back as 2006, Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska told me. As Common Cause Nebraska later discovered, TransCanada had hired a lobbying firm in Lincoln to quietly wine and dine members of the state’s unicameral legislature—pushing the line that the pipeline project was not their problem, but a matter for the federal government.

Yet after the pipeline application was submitted in 2008, opposition began to take hold. In 2010, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning were forced to return donations that they had received from TransCanada in violation of campaign finance laws that prohibited taking campaign money from foreign corporations. In 2011, Heineman called a special session of the legislature to address the pipeline, prompting TransCanada to spend $529,000 on lobbying and legal expenses for that session alone.

Late last year, TransCanada, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and a host of industry lobbyists flew state legislators from all over the US into Canada for a three-day “ALEC Academy” on tar-sands oil. (The event later drew an ethics complaint from the liberal Center for Media and Democracy against Nebraska state Sen. Jim Smith, for failure to disclose the trip.)

This year, even as some in the media seem to be tiring of the issue and declaring it done, the lobbying is more intense than ever. Bloomberg News in April reported that 48 groups lobbied on the issue in the first three months of the year—from Exxon Mobil to the Laborers International Union of North America to the American Jewish Committee, with all but two of the 48 apparently in favor of the pipeline. The highest-profile Keystone lobbyist of them all, as National Journal pointed out last week, is Canada itself.

These lobbying expenditures over the years seem to have borne legislative fruit. The House of Representatives has voted no fewer than seven times to move the project forward, and the Senate followed suit in a 62-37 vote this March. In April 2012, Nebraska legislators approved a bill sponsored by Jim Smith—the state senator who would later that year take part in the “ALEC academy” trip—expediting the pipeline approval process at the state level.

The influence of lobbyists on Keystone has gone largely unremarked upon in Nebraska media, however, with the exception of some strong World-Herald pieces in 2011 and 2012. More recent coverage on lobbying in the state has fed off investigations by interested parties such as Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy rather than Nebraska reporters themselves. Of course, much of the arm-twisting on Keystone has happened outside the Cornhusker State, and Nebraskans are unused to being Ground Zero in a national political controversy. But readers in the state need to know whose interests are being served—and why.

Perhaps an even more interesting aspect of the Keystone story, however, is the unlikely coalition that has risen up to counter these well-funded Goliaths.

Emboldened opposition

In February, the Sierra Club broke from 120 years of tradition to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Executive Director Michael Brune was one of 48 protesters arrested for obstructing the sidewalk in front of the White House. “This particular project—Keystone XL pipeline—is so horrendous, it’s so wrong, and it’s being proposed at such an important time that we don’t want to leave any tool on the table,” Brune told BillMoyers.com.

The environmental movement seems to have elevated its activism and organization to an unprecedented level in fighting Keystone—and despite being dwarfed in the spending battle, their efforts may also have borne fruit. Back in November 2011, thousands of demonstrators formed a human ring around the White House, as environmentalist leaders threatened to withhold funding from Obama’s 2012 campaign if he OK’d the pipeline. Two months later, Obama denied TransCanada’s application; the company reapplied in May 2012, but the project remains in a state of limbo today.

The media, politicians, and the oil industry all seem to have been caught off guard by the intensity of the opposition. Of all the looming threats to the environment, why has this once-obscure project galvanized a movement? It’s a good question for journalists to address.

Gould, of Common Cause Nebraska, credits one local organization with igniting the movement—BOLD Nebraska, founded in 2009 by Democratic activist Jane Kleeb. “I think if it had not been for a grassroots uprising led by BOLD Nebraska, it would have just slipped right by,” Gould said of the pipeline. Kleeb’s team of prairie activists has helped to bridge the gap between lefty environmentalists concerned about climate change and conservative rural Nebraskans concerned with land values, infrastructure, and the water supply.

One member of the latter group is Greg Awtry, publisher of the York News-Times, who has been persistent and outspoken in opposition to the pipeline. “I’m a capitalist, conservative—really more of a libertarian—not an environmentalist,” said Awtry. “It’s just strange bedfellows. Jane Kleeb and I would very seldom be on same sides of an issue.”

The latest gambit by BOLD Nebraska and friends has been to take the fight to county boards on the pipeline route, encouraging them to pass resolutions against the project. As a result, Holt County passed an anti-pipeline resolution in April, and York and Antelope counties are considering doing the same. Awtry says this opposition is gaining strength, under the media radar: “The numbers, here at least, are growing in opposition to it,” he says.

Facts on (and under) the ground

TransCanada’s rerouting of the pipeline last year was a major turning point in official and editorial opinion on the issue. Gov. Heineman, who had expressed reservations about the original route because it threatened Nebraska’s Sandhills region and the Ogallala aquifer, was now on board, as were the previously skeptical World-Herald and Journal Star. A June 18 World-Herald editorial argued that “Nebraskans’ opposition to the initial proposal helped improve the pipeline’s route—moving it away from much of the Sand Hills and aquifer.”

In fact, the reroute does not move the pipeline away from the aquifer at all—only from the Sandhills area (and not entirely away from that either, according to ranchers and environmental groups). The aquifer is one of the largest in the world, spanning 174,000 square miles and eight states. The Sandhills are a region of grass-covered dunes sitting atop the aquifer, where the water is particularly close to the surface.

“Originally, everyone was talking about the Sandhills and the aquifer,” one retired rancher told Inside Climate News last year. “Somehow when the special session came around the aquifer got dropped, and we’ve been having trouble getting people to talk about both together again.” But activists are trying: “The aquifer is such a special thing, and we have this special resource,” said Gould of Common Cause Nebraska. “What happens if it is polluted, and what guarantee is there that they can clean it up?”

Awtry of the News-Times has been one of the few in the media to point out inconsistencies in statements by Gov. Heineman regarding the reroute. In 2011, Heineman urged Obama to deny the TransCanada application, writing, “I am opposed to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route because it is directly over the Ogallala Aquifer.” But at the beginning of this year, he gave the OK to the reroute, which still lies directly over the aquifer.

This is one of the points that Awtry has raised in years of editorializing against Keystone. He studied TransCanada’s own Environmental Impact Study to reveal that the company decided against an alternate route avoiding the aquifer because it would have cost more. He has lamented the fact that tar sands are exempt from taxes paid by producers into the Oil Spill Liability Fund—an anomaly which, congressional Democrats noted in a report last year, could deprive the fund of hundreds of millions of dollars that would be needed to help clean up any spills from operations like Keystone. He has examined the composition of the diluted bitumen (dilbit) in tar-sands oil, which may make spill cleanups even more difficult than they are for conventional oil (evidence is inconclusive on this, however, according to Scientific American).

This crusade has put Awtry at odds with his own bosses—the News-Times is owned by the World-Herald, which, in turn, is now part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire. Buffett himself has come out in favor of the pipeline, as has the World-Herald. “They actually own us and I’ve been critical of their coverage,” Awtry said, adding that “we have editorial freedom at all of our papers, which is awesome.”

What the future holds

As President Obama nears a decision, the opposition has more in store. Ranchers in Nebraska have filed suit to block the reroute, arguing that Sen. Smith’s 2012 bill paving the way for the revision improperly politicized the state approval process and unconstitutionally singled out one company for favoritism. A judge ruled last month that the suit can go forward. In the event that the pipeline is approved, BOLD Nebraska and allied legal counsel have advised counties on regulatory methods to keep TransCanada from exploiting their communities, with permitting, application fees, road-crossing fees, zoning, reclamations, noise ordinances—anything that isn’t preempted by state or federal law. Meanwhile, Mint Press News reported this week that more than 69,000 activists have pledged to engage in civil disobedience if the pipeline is approved.

If the president does give the go-ahead, as many observers have long expected he will, the story is far from over. Journalists will have the opportunity to test TransCanada’s claims that the pipeline would boost the economy and reduce dependence on Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil. Local officials will attempt to regulate the pipeline after their own fashion—or decide it’s not worth it. Environmentalists may practice civil disobedience, as they have been training to do. TransCanada, with help from allies such as ALEC, will do its best to avoid governmental interference, as it has done throughout the approval process, even while leaning on the authorities to stop any acts of civil disobedience, as it has indicated it will do.

And should a spill take place, all parties concerned, not least the media, will have another, even more prolonged battle on their hands.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent seven years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.