Community action and climate change

So why did rural Nebraska become the centre of the KXL debate? The original KXL route traversed through the ecologically sensitive Nebraskan Sandhills, which is a vast area of grass-covered sand dunes encompassing roughly one third of the state (61,000 km2). Beneath the Sandhills lies the main body of the Ogallala aquifer, which underlies 80% of the state. Both of these natural resources are vital for rural Nebraskans, representing an important component of the state’s agricultural economy and rural Nebraska’s culture and character.

Based on the public comment transcript data, concern about potential pipeline leaks into the Ogallala aquifer and pipeline safety issues were the most significant drivers of landowner opposition to the KXL project. Other major concerns included the toxicity of material transported through the pipeline, pipeline construction safety, and perceptions of injustice such as the infringement of private property rights. In fact, private property rights were a major component of the resistance movement in Nebraska, and many landowners I interviewed wondered why their political representatives supported a foreign corporation’s effort to force landowners to sacrifice portions of their farm or ranch land for private gain.

I also found repeated references to climate change in the public testimonies relating to water conservation and the future viability of farmer and rancher livelihoods. During the six-year opposition movement in Nebraska, climate change became a very important aspect of the anti-KXL campaign. The pipeline would threaten the Ogallala aquifer and contribute to rising CO2 levels. At the public hearings, landowner concerns about climate change focused on the future sustainability of farming and ranching communities and the trajectory of energy policy in the United States. Many third-generation and fourth-generation farmers and ranchers spoke about the potential negative impacts of climate change on agriculture, such as prolonged drought and extreme weather events. Older Nebraskans who testified, particularly females, voiced concern about their grandchildren’s future in agriculture due to climate change. Here we see how the protection of local natural resources can connect to greater climate change issues. Linking local concerns to greater environmental issues is vitally important for raising awareness about climate change and encouraging environmentally oriented collective behavior9. The KXL pipeline debate brought climate change concerns to the forefront of the opposition movement in Nebraskan communities. This social dialogue about the effects of climate change and agriculture in a politically conservative region might not have occurred if the pipeline issue had not emerged.

The impact of the opposition movement in Nebraska on other communities fighting climate change and potentially risky energy projects is already becoming apparent. The Bold Nebraska organizational model has been replicated in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Iowa to raise awareness about natural resource protection and climate change issues10. In North Dakota, a sustained opposition movement composed primarily of Native Americans from Standing Rock Sioux Reservation emerged to fight the Dakota Access pipeline and protect water resources11. Many of these new community-mobilization campaigns fighting energy projects have taken their lead from Bold Nebraska’s successful mobilization model12. The political coalition that formed between diverse groups in Nebraskan communities illustrates how concern about shared community assets can work to transcend political and cultural differences in the name of environmental protection. Future grassroots environmental mobilizations can learn some important lessons from the opposition movement in Nebraska and their demonstration of the power of community action in protecting natural resources and fighting climate change.

On 24 January 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Memorandum requesting TransCanada resubmit their application to build the KXL pipeline, although this does not guarantee that the pipeline will be built. Bold Nebraska has vowed to continue to mobilize Nebraskans to fight the pipeline.