Senate Democrats filibustered a measure yesterday that would speed up the vote on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which could take the decision on Keystone out of the hands of both the White House and the State Department. Known as cloture, the move — pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — would have effectively quashed 12 amendments to the bill brought by Democrats, including one to close the “Haliburton loophole” and mandate that gas drilling companies comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, and another to require that oil companies contribute money to government clean-up efforts in the event of spills or leakage. In the wake of the 50,000 gallon crude oil spill into Montana’s Yellowstone River on January 17, the result of a pipeline “breach,” Republicans’ efforts seem especially bold. As congressional Republicans jockey to rush approval of the controversial infrastructure project, the millions who live along the Keystone XL’s proposed route have been left out of the conversation on Capitol Hill.
Art Tanderup is a farmer and retired schoolteacher. He and his wife, Helen, live in Antelope County, Neb., just outside the town of Neligh along the eastern Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to over 80 percent of High Plains residents — around 2.3 million people. A few years ago, a representative from TransCanada told the Tanderups that the Keystone XL pipeline would run directly through their property, offering — as they had other landowners in the region — money to sign an “easement,” or legal right of way for the company to build on their farm. After researching the pipeline and the tar sands, Art became involved with Bold Nebraska, which has been a leading voice in the fight against the pipeline since its founding in 2010. Since that time, Art has been active in the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska and at the national level, working with the Cowboy Indian Alliance and advocating against the pipeline in Washington, D.C. Last fall, Tanderup Farms hosted Willie Nelson, Neil Young and thousands from around the country for the “Harvest of Hope” concert, a benefit for Bold Nebraska, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Cowboy Indian Alliance.
I spoke with Art recently about his efforts to stop the pipeline on its frontlines.
How did you become involved with the fight against the Keystone XL?
The governor of Nebraska had told TransCanada that he would not allow it over the Ogallala Aquifer or in the Sandhills. And so they had to move the route east about 50 miles. When they released that map, we saw that it would be close to us. Then, about a week after that, we received a visit from a TransCanada land agent who wanted us to think that we’d won the lottery and that we should be so happy it was coming across our farm and through our county, and [for] all these wonderful things that it would do for us.
Were there groups organizing against it at that time?
We had not really researched this at all. From the media we understood that it was an oil pipeline. We thought everything was good and wonderful with it; that we just needed to watch out for the environment and so forth. And then after we discovered that it was going to be on our property we started researching it and discovered all the dangers, all the issues surrounding it. It wasn’t too long before we met Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska and the Nebraska Easement Action Team. We went to some meetings, and joined with other landowners to battle this. Probably within a month after we found out that it was going to be on our property we started down a path that continues today.
How is the work going now?
In Antelope County, as of right now, there are about 90 landowners who are affected by this. At this point, approximately 60 of them have signed easements with TransCanada, and there are 30 of us who have not. They’ve threatened eminent domain on a lot of people, scaring them into signing. They’ve also made signing bonuses to entice people. They gave back easements on the first route to get people to sign down here with the belief that, if this doesn’t go through, they’ll get their easement back and they’ll get to keep the money. They’ve done all kinds of tactics to get people to sign. I think we have a group of us now that doesn’t care how much money they would give us. We’re not going to sign because we feel that the land and the water is much more important than a potential spill into the aquifer.
Of those 30 land owners, had any of them been involved with any sort of organizing before?
No, it’s all a bunch of farmers out here. I don’t have a lot of activism background. I was a teacher for 35 years and was involved in some education campaigns, educational issues, educational lobbying and so forth. So, probably in this county of all the people that are fighting this I have the most experience, which isn’t a lot of experience.
The Keystone XL has become a national issue since you got involved a few years ago. Have you seen the conversation on the pipeline change in the county in anyway?
Has it ever. This has pitted neighbor against neighbor. It’s pitted family member against family member. This thing is destroying a lot of relationships that have existed for years. That is one of the most unfortunate things about it. This is my wife’s family farm that we moved back to, so people know of her and her family. They didn’t know me, but a lot of them know who I am now. In small town rural America, everyone says “hi” to everybody when you pass them on the street or see them at the store. There are people that won’t talk to me, but yet there are other people that will step aside to you and say, quietly, “We’re with you. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.” Yet, they won’t go to the extent of making bold statements about it. They’re not used to getting involved in such a controversial topic. There are a lot of businesses that are trying to stay neutral because they have customers on both sides of the issue. It puts the residents of the county, and residents probably all up and down this line, into some really awkward situations. It’s kind of “us” and “them.” It shouldn’t be that way. It should be a community that gets along; neighbors who work together like they have for a long time. That side of it is really sad because there are wounds that are developing and I don’t know if those will ever be healed, regardless of how this thing comes out.
Does that have to do a lot with people being offered large sums of money? Does it have to do with jobs being offered along the pipeline route? What all goes into that?
They offer a landowner a large amount of money just as a signing bonus. They might give them $40,000-$50,000 just as a signing bonus, and farmers generally incur a lot of debt. So having some extra income will help with that. They probably haven’t researched this thing enough to know what they’re getting themselves into. Knowing the potential liability and the potential complications that they’re leaving themselves open to, as well as the rest of their land and water.
One of the arguments that we’ve had to deal with a lot in the county is the fact that they’re obviously going to have to pay some business property taxes for a period of 15 years. That tax starts out at a high level and it decreases down to nothing after 15 years. People are seeing this tax income as a wonderful thing for the county, the schools and so forth, and that’s one of the selling points that they use, as they go talk to people in the communities. Nebraska is a high property tax state, so having some money to offset property taxes is a wonderful thing. I’d like to see some money to offset property taxes, but it’s just another way to entice people to be supportive of this thing.
They talk a little bit about local jobs. There won’t be local jobs; they’re going to bring the people in. They try to convince the community that they’re going to see a lot of extra local business, but they’re also going to see some of the negative impacts. The history is there in North Dakota; it’s there up in Canada, where you get young workers who come in with the alcohol issues, drug issues and violence against local women. Besides the little bit of business they’re going to bring in, [the workers] are probably not going to be staying within 30 miles of this county. They’ll be staying in other directions and coming in and working here. So, most of that money will be spent in larger communities, and it won’t go much to the local economy. Some of the people are convinced gas prices will go down. Some people thoroughly believe this thing won’t leak. They believe it’s pure oil coming through here. They don’t know what tar sands are, and they don’t know how dangerous they are and the chemicals are that they put in with them. I told them they can never clean it up. Once it gets in that water, it’s going to be impossible to clean it up. That aquifer is a giant sponge, basically, of sand and gravel. That stuff will start moving. It’s not really a river, but that water does have some underground movement to it, so it will move to other areas beyond the spill.
Has there been much conversation abound climate change?
Out here? Out here we have a lot of climate denial. I try to explain it to people when we have conversations about the changes in weather. We’ve just been experiencing this very unordinary cold spell as we did last winter. Last summer, we had unbelievably bad weather: tornadoes, double tornadoes, a lot of destruction, many more hail storms. We had a lot of violent weather. When I talk to people about the climate change that’s causing this, they’re to a large degree saying “It’s just one of those one in 500 year things.” Consequently, there are a few people that are concerned about climate change, and for the rest of them it’s not really on their agenda.
What gives you hope that this pipeline can be defeated?
Reporters have asked me, “What’s with this Nebraska deal? You guys seem to be stopping this thing.” It’s true. We’ve got to give a lot of credit to Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, the Bold Nebraska organization and the Cowboy Indian Alliance. It’s such an unusual thing for farmers, ranchers and Native Americans to come together and work so hard on an issue. To me, that’s been one of the most rewarding things in my life is to work together on something like this, even though I hate what we’re having to do, the actual process of it has been very rewarding.
I honestly believe that if it goes through the public service commission and there has to be a pipeline, the route will be changed. It will be taken off the major part of the aquifer, and out of the Sandhills completely. I also believe that it will not go through Native American treaty land in South Dakota. They have the right to determine whether or not that pipeline comes through their treaty land, which is basically everything west of the Missouri River in South Dakota, actually coming down into parts of Nebraska.
As time goes on here, we’re starting to see that there’s really not a need for this pipeline anymore. Some of the investors are even starting to drop off, so that’s a good sign. I really think, one way or another, we’re going to defeat this thing. I think the president is ultimately going to reject it. I’m not sure what the next actions will be, but I know there will be some. Depending on what they are, where they are, and when they are, we’ll probably be involved in some of them. My wife and I, we’ve made a commitment: If we have to spend every last dime we have, we’re going to fight this thing. We aren’t rich people, but it’s more important that we protect the land and the water because without those things life is going to cease to exist.
What happens if the pipeline is defeated? Say, best-case scenario, either investors drop out and the project loses funding or there’s a federal mandate that it doesn’t get built. What happens then, if that day comes?
Obviously there’s going to be one heck of a big party back here. (Laughs) I’m generally not a person that parties, but there will be one big party back here. I’ve learned so much about some things that I’d not learned much about before. I guess we need to move on and we need to do other things that are going to save this earth. We need to really look seriously into all the fracking issues because that’s getting bad. We need to somehow encourage the use of renewable fuels, solar, wind and resources that don’t take from the earth, but give back to it. We’ll do what we can to help with that movement as well.
Stopping the Keystone XL is going to be a big statement in the climate change arena because it’s going to say, “Okay, this is the turning point: we’re starting to wean ourselves off dirty fuel and we’re moving to clean energy.” I see that as the greatest legacy that President Obama could be left with, making sure the pipeline doesn’t happen so that we can start that path from dirty to clean. It’s already been started, but to really get moving with it. And I think that can happen.
Teaser photo credit: Kristin Moe