The Bridge on the Drina
Water, Come Down!

The Pipeline: Public Reason, Affection, and Stewardship

Today I watched a fascinating exercise in public reason--the Nebraska Public Service Commission receiving more than seven hours of public testimony about the proposed Nebraska route for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

First, some background. It is activists in Nebraska who largely killed the pipeline twice before. First, when it might have been approved by the Obama administration, Nebraska was the hold up, as there was no approved route here.  At the time even some of the GOP political leadership of the state opposed the original proposed route.  A special session of the legislature was held, new laws were created, and cases were adjudicated in court.  When Obama did finally rule against it, it was again after years of activist leadership by Nebraskans.  These same folk have now returned to oppose it again with President Trump having reignited the fight.

At the current moment there is no approved route in Nebraska and so the Public Service Commission must approve a route.  The purpose of today's public hearing was to receive public testimony on Trans-Canada's application.

In Nebraska the opposition isn't quite what people outside the state expect--it is a bipartisan coalition that includes environmental activists but also conservative ranchers who oppose their land being taken through eminent domain by a foreign company.  This latter point has always for me been the clear public reason the pipeline should be killed.  

Nebraska is an agricultural state and has never before really had to wrestle with the fossil fuel industry, so this experience has been eye-opening for the people.  Nebraska sits atop the Ogallala aquifer, which provides fresh water for five states.  But here it comes within a few feet of the surface, and in the Sandhills in particular it can bubble to the surface.  The Sandhills are a unique and fragile ecosystem which sustains the state's agriculture, is on the route of many endangered migrating bird species, and is deeply beloved in the state for its beauty.

Keystone already has an earlier pipeline which runs through the state further east, away from the aquifer and the Sandhills.  It has always been a puzzle that Trans-Canada didn't simply build the new pipeline where they already have an easement.

So today's hearing reminded us of many of those issues and more.  Proponents, which were far outnumbered by opponents, spoke primarily about job creation, though many studies have indicated that the short-term construction jobs will have a minor economic impact upon the state.  Nevertheless, the union construction workers who testified, spoke compelling of the importance of those jobs for their livelihoods and their families.  They spoke of the skill with which they build, the pride they take in their work, and the concerns they have as Nebraskans for the land and its well-being.

Opponent testimony varied across a wide-range of points-of-view and represented the vast geographical spread of the state.  Some spoke against the bullying and manipulative practices of Trans-Canada.  Many spoke of the bad deal offered landowners in Trans-Canada's easement.  Some said that if there was going to be a pipeline, then put it in the route where the first pipeline is.  Many spoke about the dirty tar sands and the potential ecological disaster from the pipeline leaking.  Some spoke about climate change and the need to invest in renewable energy instead.  Many worried what would happen decades or more from now when the pipeline is no longer needed and neither the law nor the easements require Trans-Canada to attempt to reclaim the land. People spoke of Nebraska agriculture, the beauty of the landscape, Native American cultural sites along the route, negative economic impacts, and more. 

In fact, so many reasons were given for being opposed that it was difficult to imagine that the opposition won't outweigh the support.  

And the people speaking presented all walks of life, but with a heavy preponderance of rural folk, particularly farmers and ranchers.  (This left me puzzling over the post-election analysis of the rural-urban divide, analysis I've always thought too trite and not reflective of life here in the heartland).

I was fascinated watching this democratic process and this effort at public reason.  Here were competing points-of-view.  Some arguments were more persuasive than others, some more compelling than others.  I learned a lot, including from the proponents.

Also, the speakers who became passionately angry and even sometimes mean in what they said (and frankly this was usually opponents) did not serve themselves well.  And too many speakers reiterated points already made, some times many times before.  But many speakers gave very well reasoned, well researched, and well presented persuasive arguments as to why the pipeline doesn't serve the public interest of Nebraskans.  

I was speaker number 119.  I didn't get a chance to speak till after 4 p.m. and wasn't sure I would as I didn't want to cover ground someone else had already talked about.  But no one had spoken of the issue from the perspective of the Christian faith, so I did.  I was surprised by the absence of clergy, particularly from my denomination, which has long opposed the pipeline.  I stated that our stewardship of nature is among the first commands God gave us and that if we are to fulfill our moral and religious obligations then we should reject the pipeline.

Most compelling for me were the ranchers and farmers whose land would be seized in eminent domain who opposed the pipeline.  Many are living on land that has been in their families since it was homesteaded in the 19th century.  Many hope the land will remain in their family for a century or more to come.  When they spoke of their land it was with deep affection (which reminded me of Wendell Berry) and an abiding sense of responsibility that goes by the old word stewardship.  They spoke of the fragility of the Sandhills soil and how their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers learned that once it was improperly disturbed it could not be restored to its former self.

Most powerful were the landowners who broke down weeping.  Usually men.  One could barely speak of how his family is afraid of losing their land.  They have had to mortgage it and they worry that the pipeline will destroy what makes it special.  Early in the day a rancher who had to be in his eighties was the first to cry, weeping as he spoke of his love and responsibility for his family land and his deep fear that his land will be seized and ruined.

So, an overwhelming and diverse group of Nebraskans testifying that this pipeline isn't in the public interest.  Many good and compelling rational arguments.  And the heartbreaking pleas of the farmers and ranchers who love the water and land God has given into their stewardship.  What the Public Service Commission should do is quite clear.


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Jim Harmon

Thanks for representing First Central and the UCC at this hearing Scott. Bonnie and I felt such energy as we joined roughly 200,000 others including many UCC folks at the climate march last Saturday. That event gave me a whole new appreciation of the witness we must continue to make as Christians related to our planet and the well being of earth's inhabitants in the future. Reading your words here helps me to be even more passionate for the cause of protecting our precious God given resources and preserving the planet for future generations. Even though I am retired and have limited ministry now in my position at First Central, I will make this cause an on going priority as much as possible. Thanks again for being there on our behalf.

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