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Cornhuskers vs. Keystone XL Pipeline: Next Steps?

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Wednesday afternoon the Nebraska state legislature approved a bill (LB1161) that will allow Nebraska to proceed with a $2 million study to find a route for TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline through the state. Gov. Dave Heineman is expected to sign the measure into law. It's a case of Big Red going for the black by jeopardizing the green. But what does this mean?

First, it means that the global "people power" movement against the Keystone XL pipeline beat back the energy and oil industry in January when President Obama and the State Department denied TransCanada's pipeline permit. Our "united we stand" organizing strategy was effective. It forced the TransCanada to switch tactics.

Now the oil industry is pushing a "divide and conquer" tactic. The plan is to break the pipeline up into state-sized parts and negotiate on each section. But defensive wars are won more often than offensive ones. And Americans against the pipeline are fighting a defensive war to protect our land against a self-serving foreign oil company. Our forces are more agile in fighting state-based regional battles than TransCanada's blunt money-shoving weapon. While proposed route changes away from the environmentally sensitive Sandhills are very laudable and should be supported, one doesn't want to spend too much time praising the alignment of the Titanic's deck chairs when the sirens are sounding.

Second, it means that Nebraska needs cash and the proud Cornhuskers in the lege will do what's necessary to get it. Since the oil industry lobbyists have convinced the Obama administration to allow new routes to be proposed, Nebraska is leaping into the new maneuvering space -- in part to keep filling the state's depleted coffers with funds from the TransCanada cash cow. The bill approved today will re-start the pipeline "review" process on the state level. And, the bill requires TransCanada to reimburse the state for the route study. Ka-ching!

Nebraska's Gov. Dave Heineman (Republican) has been walking a fine line between the pressure for "jobs" in his depressed Midwestern state and environmental concerns about running an oil pipeline through "America's well," the Oglala Aquifer. Earlier this year Heineman was strongly against the pipeline because of the effects of an oil spill could have in the Sandhills, where water tables -- including those of the massive Ogallala Aquifer -- are high. A spill would be devastating for drinking water and for agricultural water needed to keep Nebraska steers watered for producing those fine Omaha steaks. In 2011, TransCanada had 12 oil spills in the U.S. Fears are well-founded.

Third, it means it's time for Nebraskans to turn up the heat on their governor and legislators. The re-ignited Keystone review will likely fast-track eminent domain powers by the state. Anyone along the new proposed route will be offered pretty money up front by TransCanada to sell their inheritance for pottage. If that doesn't work, then the state will start exercising its right to take land and homes and pay bottom dollar for the property.

Finally, a reminder. It's misleading for news reports to call the Keystone XL a "crude-oil pipeline." It's not -- at least not in any common understanding of the phrase. It is a "synthetic oil and bitumen" or "tar sands oil" pipeline. This is a non-standard petroleum product that cannot be transported safely through traditional pipelines. It's even more toxic than traditional crude oil.

The political shenanigans around the Keystone XL pipeline will continue through the election season. President Obama is fearful of alienating his Big Oil funders. States desperately need money and will look to private industry to get it -- even if it means cutting off your nose to spite their face.

But let's keep the big picture in mind. The Canadian tar sands are the second largest carbon reserve in the world. Mining these reserves already involves clear-cutting boreal forests, breaking indigenous treaties, irreversibly damaging water quality, and introducing toxic waste into the food chain affecting human health, especially the health of pregnant women and their developing babies.

And it takes 8,800 pounds of earth and tar sands, plus an average of 155 gallons of fresh water, to produce one barrel of tar sands oil, which will fill half a tank of a Chevy Suburban. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points out that Canadian tar sands carbon emissions are "82 percent greater than the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-tank basis."

This pipeline is a climate killer -- no matter what route it takes.

Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners magazine associate editor, was an organizer for the Tar Sands religious witness.

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