When it comes to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, Nebraska’s two gubernatorial candidates would have to search long and hard to find common ground.
Republican Pete Ricketts and Democrat Chuck Hassebrook hold polar opposite views on whether or not the pipeline should be built: Ricketts is a yes, Hassebrook a no.
They also differ sharply on several of the issues that flow from the pipeline.
Ricketts is “skeptical” of the idea that mankind is behind climate change, while Hassebrook believes that science has settled the case against fossil fuels.
Ricketts believes that the use of eminent domain against landowners who are unwilling to accept the pipeline is justified in this case because, he argued, the pipeline would help the nation become more energy independent and less reliant on foreign oil.
“All these things weigh into the public good,” Ricketts said.
Hassebrook says he is “deeply concerned” about whether it’s proper for a Canadian company to use eminent domain in Nebraska for a private, for-profit venture.
“This was more about the interests of a foreign corporation than it was about Nebraskans,” Hassebrook said.
The pipeline would carry oil from Canada’s tar-sands region to refineries in Texas. It has been one of Nebraska’s most heated political dramas in recent memory, causing controversy on both the state and national levels.
Each candidate’s views could cost him some support at the ballot box.
Jane Kleeb, the director of environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska, which opposes the pipeline, said the Keystone XL remains a potent topic in Nebraska politics. It may not be the deciding issue in the race, but Kleeb said she considers it among the top five for voters — especially for rural landowners in western Nebraska.
“I certainly think it’s a litmus test for some voters in Nebraska. And we are certainly doing our best to cultivate that bloc,” Kleeb said.
Pro-pipeline supporters also say that for some voters, such as union workers who are out of work, the only issue that will matter will be Keystone.
Chris Peterson, spokesman for the pro-pipeline group Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, said that group may be a small number of voters, but in a close race, every vote will count. Polls have shown that this could be one of the closest governor’s races in recent history in Nebraska, with Ricketts currently ahead by single digits among likely voters.
“I think there will be voters — it may not be a huge number — but I do think there will be some voters who base their decision on the pipeline,” Peterson said.
Hassebrook and Ricketts did agree on a few political aspects of the pipeline. They said they believe their stances on the issue cut both ways with voters.
Ricketts acknowledges that some Republicans in western Nebraska oppose the pipeline, but he believes he will ultimately get their votes. Hassebrook notes that some union members in Omaha support the pipeline, but he also believes that when the chips are down, those people will vote for him.
“As I make my way around the state, this is one of the questions that comes up,” Ricketts said. “But it certainly isn’t one of the things driving politics in the state today.”
“I think it’s a mixed bag politically,” Hassebrook said.
For Hassebrook, his opposition to the pipeline is directly tied to his belief that global warming is real and is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. He agrees with environmentalists who argue that the development of Canada’s tar sands will result in more greenhouse gases being released into the environment, speeding up global warming.
“I believe we have an obligation to our children and our grandchildren to address that,” said Hassebrook, saying he would push for the development of alternative energy sources such as wind and biofuels if elected governor.
For Ricketts, the pipeline is all about jobs and the economy. The pipeline would bring thousands of new jobs to Nebraska, he said, and would help the nation wean itself off foreign oil.
“It will help create jobs, and I think the fundamental question we’re facing here in the state is how we grow Nebraska,” Ricketts said.
As for global warming, Ricketts said he remains a “skeptic,” arguing that he hasn’t seen any proof that fossil fuels are heating up the planet. “I believe it is far from clear — despite what the other side is saying — it is far from clear what is going on with our climate,” he said.
One point the two candidates agree upon is that, at this moment, the issue appears to be out of the hands of Nebraska’s politicians and in the hands of the courts and President Barack Obama.
They also agree that, for the most part, Nebraska’s next governor will have to live with whatever the courts or president decides.
Hassebrook said he believes the fight is over, politically, in Nebraska. If elected governor, he does not plan to refight the battle in the Nebraska Legislature.
“It’s an issue the Legislature and the governor have dealt with. I don’t want to go back and revisit that. I think part of making government work is you don’t go back and refight the battle 20 times,” Hassebrook said.
Ricketts also said the future of the pipeline is out of his hands. He fully expects it to be built and says that, as governor, he would continue to support the project. But he said it now appears to be in the hands of the courts and Obama.
“We had a political process that worked. The folks that had concerns about the route of the pipeline had the ability to address the issue,” Ricketts said.
The project currently is in legal and political limbo.
A new route approved by the Nebraska Legislature to address concerns over the state’s Ogallala Aquifer has been challenged in court. In less than two weeks, on Sept. 5, the Nebraska Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case.
Obama, who has the final word on the project, is believed to be waiting to see how the Nebraska court rules before issuing his final opinion.
In the meantime, the anti-pipeline movement in Nebraska continues to move forward. Most recently Bold Nebraska, the leading anti-pipeline group, landed the help of two music legends: Neil Young and Willie Nelson.
Young and Nelson are set to perform at a sold-out protest concert on a northeast Nebraska farm on Sept. 27.
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