August 18, 2012

The Washington Post

SPALDING, Neb. — Bob Bernt, a bear of a man, a rancher and a lifelong Republican, had about 25 people over recently for a pork-and-beans cookout.

The ranchers and farmers who drove their pickups to Bernt’s place were almost all Republicans, of one stripe or another. One sported a Ron Paul button. Another said he had lived — until recently — as "no opinion Tom." Some admired the Tea Party; others derided it.

After an afternoon of floating down a nearby river, sampling Bernt’s organic cheese and ice cream, and listening to a cowboy poet, they sat under a large white tent to talk about what really brought them together: standing up to the big pipeline company TransCanada.

When TransCanada said its $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta to Texas would pass about two miles from this tiny town in central Nebraska — crossing 92 miles of the state’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills and parts of the vast Ogallala Aquifer — it stirred opposition throughout the state.

Political boundaries crumbled as the pipeline proposal united Nebraskans across party lines.

Its route riled Nebraskans who fear water contamination and resent the ability of a corporation — especially a foreign one — to wield the right of eminent domain.

So when President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada’s Keystone XL proposal, saying his administration needed more time to weigh the environmental impact of the route through Nebraska, he was practicing his own version of "triangulation" politics, playing to environmental groups and making common cause with people in a solidly red state.

"I was really impressed with that," Bernt said of Obama’s decision in January. "He showed more backbone than I thought he had."

The pipeline remains a confounding political issue with traps for both presidential candidates.

"Nebraska, even though we’re one of the reddest of red states, we have this prairie populism streak," said Philip Young, a former executive director of the state Republican Party.

The politics of the pipeline could also echo far beyond the Nebraska statehouse.

In the race for the U.S. Senate, crucial for Democrats trying to keep a majority, Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and former Democratic senator, has tiptoed around the pipeline issue.

His opponent, Deb Fischer, a state senator from a Sand Hills region and a Tea Party favorite, was among the legislators in Nebraska to vote unanimously against the pipeline initially, but she now supports it.

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