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Nebraska Landowners Sit At The Heart Of Keystone Controversy


Keystone XL - for years now, the pipeline has been tied up in polarizing argument about energy, jobs and the environment. Keystone's been argued in the U.S. Congress, in state court, at protests around the country and on late-night television.


STEPHEN COLBERT: You're going to sign that, right?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, these young people weren't polled.

COLBERT: No - they're chanting, Do It.

BLOCK: Stephen Colbert gave President Obama a ribbing about the pipeline last week.


OBAMA: Keystone is going through an evaluation process right now. It's being held up by a court in Nebraska which is making a decision about whether the route is legal or not.

BLOCK: The Nebraska Supreme Court could decide as early as this Friday whether the route through that state is legal. Final approval of the pipeline rests with President Obama, since it would cross the U.S.-Canada border. With the pipeline fate in limbo, we decided to go talk to Nebraskans at the heart of this story. Today we'll meet some of the stakeholders, people whose land the pipeline would cross, people who've ended up on opposite sides of the Keystone debate.

B. DUNAVAN: The pipeline will come this direction. Right there. It would come in from that angle and cut across this hill, probably hit about where those cottonwoods are.

S. DUNAVAN: And at the northwest corner is where the pipeline will cross.

BLOCK: You say will?

DUNAVAN: Well, (laughter) hopefully not.

BLOCK: We've come to blustery York County, Nebraska, about an hour from the capital, Lincoln. The proposed route for the Keystone XL is a diagonal, starting in the Alberta tar sands and running down through Nebraska. And it's here that Keystone has run into trouble.

DUNAVAN: I never dreamed that I would be fighting a multibillion-dollar corporation. That was not on my bucket list, as someone told me. (Laughter).

BLOCK: That's Susan Dunavan. She's one of three named plaintiffs fighting the Keystone XL pipeline and the company behind it, TransCanada, in court. She and her husband Bill own 80 acres of rolling pastureland.

DUNAVAN: There's purple curry clover, gayfeather...

BLOCK: The Dunavans have spent decades restoring this land and fighting invasive species. It's now thriving with dozens of varieties of native plants.

DUNAVAN: This one's switchgrass plant. This one is a little bluestem.

BLOCK: The latest invasive threat? Well, for the Dunavans, it's TransCanada. For almost seven years, the company has been trying to get them to sign an easement. It would allow TransCanada to lay pipeline underneath their pasture. The Dunavans have said an emphatic no.

DUNAVAN: I think Keystone would make the county a potential disaster zone.

DUNAVAN: It would emphasize the fact that we're probably not only fly-over country, but we're burrow-under country, with no regard to the people that live here.

BLOCK: So where we're standing right now is pretty much - it would be going right under our feet, here.

DUNAVAN: Right. Yeah.

BLOCK: Inside, sitting around the kitchen table next to Susan's collection of salt and pepper shakers in the shape of corncobs, we talk about how this all started. First, a phone call from TransCanada.

DUNAVAN: Actually, I thought it was practical joke from some friends to begin with.

BLOCK: Really?

DUNAVAN: Yes. (Laughter).

BLOCK: Then - visits.

DUNAVAN: We've had, I think, at least seven land agents that come out, and they'll say, well, you know, here's your easement. You have to sign this, and we're coming whether you want us or not. I just felt like they were treating us really badly, and then we started getting letters.

BLOCK: Dunavan opens a three-inch thick binder - one of many stacked on her kitchen counter - and pulls out one of those letters.

DUNAVAN: This was written in July of 2010.

While we hope to acquire this property through negotiation, if we are unable to do so we will be forced to invoke the power of eminent domain and we'll initiate condemnation proceedings against this property promptly after...

BLOCK: More letters followed, all claiming to be final offers. As the Dunavans learned more, their worries grew beyond their own pastureland. They worry about a pipeline leak contaminating the vital Ogallala Aquifer which stretches underneath nearly all of Nebraska. And they worry about the environmental effects up in Canada, where the tar sands oil is extracted. The Dunavans say as Catholics, they see conservation as a moral issue. As divisive as this fight has been, it's also built community. For years, the Dunavans they thought they were the only ones against the pipeline. Now they've found allies among their neighbors.

DUNAVAN: We all believe that our land is sacred, our water is sacred. We don't want a quick monetary economic, quote, "fix." Let's look at the big picture. I mean, the big picture is, like, forever. I want to pass this on to the next generations.


BLOCK: So you don't have to worry about too many people driving by?


BLOCK: Jim Klute lives about eight miles away from the Dunavans. We walk up an empty gravel road that runs alongside his farmland.

KLUTE: This is beans. Next year, it'll be corn. Then it goes back to beans - back and forth each year.

BLOCK: Klute is 76, retired farmer, proud Cornhusker fan and a Keystone supporter.

So when they came to you, Mr. Klute, and said, we're going to build this pipeline, we'd like to put part of it on your land, what was the first thing you thought?

KLUTE: What are you going to pay me? (Laughter). How do I get compensated? And we talked about it. And I'd done my homework. And I've been compensated very well.

BLOCK: What was the end result of that? How much was the ultimate?

KLUTE: I'm not going to tell you (laughter).

BLOCK: You're not going to tell me?

KLUTE: (Laughter) But, it was very good.

BLOCK: From what we hear around York, TransCanada payouts in five and six-figure range are pretty common.

KLUTE: I was probably one of the first ones that signed.

BLOCK: So did your neighbor across the street sign?

KLUTE: Did he sign? I'm sure he did. I don't know, don't ask.

BLOCK: You don't ask?

KLUTE: (Laughter) No. I don't know that I've talked to anybody.

BLOCK: Why not?

KLUTE: I've done my thing.

BLOCK: TransCanada has already paid Klute for the easement and compensation for several years' crop loss. He and all of the others who have signed will keep that money, regardless of whether the pipeline gets built.

KLUTE: I have no problem with TransCanada - good, professional people. No, there's nobody pressuring me, nobody - I done my homework, you know? And it's just business.

BLOCK: Jim Klute points down the road. There's a high-pressure natural gas pipeline already running under his field.

KLUTE: That gas line was put in in 1951. That's - going to be 63 years ago.

BLOCK: It was his father who signed that easement.

KLUTE: What if my dad would've said, no, we're not going to do that? He got a $181 to let them put that easement across there.

BLOCK: Right across this field?

KLUTE: Yeah. Starts over there at that corner and comes clear across. Now, what if he had said no? York would've not had natural gas. All these irrigation wells are running off of natural gas.

BLOCK: So the Keystone XL will be much bigger than that, and a lot more stuff coming through. And a lot more stuff that some people are concerned about environmentally. If there were to be a leak, the solvents mixed in with the tar sands oil - really concerned about that getting into the water table. What do you think about that?

KLUTE: I don't think that'll ever happen. I'm more concerned about that railroad track up there a mile-and-a-half away than I am about this pipeline.

BLOCK: What do you mean?

KLUTE: What happens if somebody hits one of those ethanol cars? Probably cause more damage than what that pipeline would, I think.


BLOCK: Yeah, we're hearing that train right now carrying something. It sounds like you're saying if it were up to you, this pipeline should've been built and put in a long time ago.

KLUTE: A long time ago. Three, four years ago, it ought to have been built, down the road and running. But we'll see.

BLOCK: Tomorrow on the program, we'll hear from TransCanada and from others who live in York County, Nebraska.


BLOCK: We'll hear how the noisy pipeline fight is playing out in this small, quiet community.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's pretty cute when somebody wants to talk about it when they come into the nursery. They come behind the counter and kind of whisper in my ear and say what's going on with the pipeline?

BLOCK: More on Keystone XL tomorrow, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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