Cornhuskers join Louisianans in fighting Big Oil


I’ve written a lot lately about the growing movement for environmental justice in my home state of Louisiana — about Gen. Russel Honore and his “Green Army” and how everyday citizens of the state, from Mandeville to Bayou Corne, are saying no to Big Oil and Gas running roughshod over their drinking water and the natural splendor of Bayou Country. It’s more noteworthy because Louisiana is, for the most part, a pretty conservative state. It’s not that folks don’t care about the land where they hunt or fish or raise their family, but when they go into the voting booth, it’s usually appeals to God, flag, and Southern cultural values that win the day.

What’s more, starting around the 1970s or so, the oil industry surpassed farming and more traditional manufacturing as the biggest source of jobs around these parts — and people have tended to see the energy industry more as a source of employment than of environmental headaches. The people we elected to office, from both parties, have tended to side with Big Oil, and rarely did anyone put up a fuss. But it’s clear that the new American oil boom, and the risky, pollution-causing techniques that are in play, have changed the rules of the game — especially when catastrophes like the BP oil spill make it clear what can possibly go wrong.

And it’s not just Louisiana. Look at Nebraska, one of the most conservative states in the nation. The Cornhusker State is hardly a hotbed of traditional environmentalism, but when people heard that a giant pipeline — the Keystone XL — would criss-cross their prairies atop the aquifer that supplies drinking water for a lot of the state, folks began to contemplate the risks. And they saw there was little reward in having Keystone XL pass through the state. What happened next, as chronicled this week by the New York Times, was truly amazing:

It has been six years since TransCanada, an energy company, first proposed this 1,179-mile crude-oil pipeline to southern Nebraska from Alberta. In that time, a group of Nebraska farmers, ranchers, Native Americans and city-dwelling environmentalists has held meeting after meeting to rally opposition to the pipeline and forge a delicate trust as it worked toward a common goal.

Keystone XL has broad support nationally from Republicans, who trumpet the pipeline’s potential to create jobs and provide needed energy from an ally. But many people in this usually conservative state have been unmoved by those arguments, and some have pressed the issue in court.

Activists have scored some successes. After they complained loudly about the initial route, which would have gone through the ecologically delicate Sandhills region, TransCanada agreed to shift the pipeline eastward.

Even with that change, the debate is far from settled. Leaders of the opposition movement now want the pipeline project scrapped altogether, citing concerns about TransCanada and fears that a spill would irreparably harm the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground water source used to irrigate cropland and supply taps across a wide portion of the heartland.

This past weekend, about 8,000 of these hearty opponents turned out in a cornfield in a very rural area — along the proposed pipeline route — to listen to Willie Nelson and Neil Young and to raise their common voices in concern. It’s the same thing that I’ve been seeing elsewhere — from Pennsylvania and upstate New York to California and small rural towns in between. The more people are exposed to the reality and the risks of the new American oil boom, the more they get involved. It’s exciting because not only can that make the United States less dependent on fossil fuels, but it might even make us more democratic.

Read more of the New York Times’ coverage about Nebraska Keystone XL pipeline coverage at:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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