RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Pierce writes: "Our political leaders have presented this so dishonestly. It's about energy security? Bullshit. The oil's not even guaranteed to stay in this country. It's going out on the open market. They come out with polls saying Americans want this pipeline. Yeah, because they've heard all this bullshit."

Randy Thompson, a Nebraska landowner, is challenging the assumption by TransCanada that it can seize land for an oil pipeline. (photo: Dave Weaver/NYT)
Randy Thompson, a Nebraska landowner, is challenging the assumption by TransCanada that it can seize land for an oil pipeline. (photo: Dave Weaver/NYT)

The XL Pipeline's Accidental Activist

By Charles P. Pierce, Esquire Magazine

07 May 12


t has gone right into being summer here this year. It has been a time of low, flat heat during the day, and glowering purple skies in the evening, and warning sirens in the dead of night. Flowers that don't usually bloom until June are in full blossom, and the butterflies have come early. Randy Thompson's spread in this unincorporated piece of land just south of Lincoln off Highway 77 is bright and alive and about six weeks ahead of schedule. The downrunning sidehill property has a straight view down through the pastureland to the spire of the Nebraska state capitol building, one of the few skyscraper capitols in the country. Randy Thompson stands in the kitchen of his house and gazes down through the green miles, through the lowering haze of the morning. "You know," he says, "I used to like that view. Don't like it much anymore."

Against anyone's expectations, including his own, Randy has become the face of local resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline, the massive project aimed at bringing oil from the tar-sands moonscape of Alberta, down through the heart of the American plains, to refineries on the Gulf coast of Texas. He is big and burly, a cattle-buyer who looks as though he could make his purchases and carry them personally to whoever had ordered them. By his own admission, Randy is a Republican and, for years, a resolutely apolitical one. "I guess I'm kind of an accidental activist," he says. "I did it because it needed to be done. Some people asked me to do it and I said, 'If you think it's important, if you need a face to rally around, I'll do it.' " Since then, Thompson has testified before the Nebraska legislature. He has testified before Congress. He has testified before members of the State Department. (Because the pipeline crosses the border, the State Department has to pass on the project, too.) He has written letters. His face appears on T-shirts and on hats sold by an organization called Bold Nebraska, which has been fighting the construction of the pipeline for more that five years.

"I noticed Randy at some of the meetings," says Jane Kleeb, the organization's executive director. "At the second meeting where I saw him, I asked him to come have a soda with me. I knew immediately he'd be the perfect spokesman. If you offered Randy a million dollars, he wouldn't take it."

Since then, Randy has watched as the Keystone XL pipeline has become an article of faith within the national Republican party, so much so that Willard Romney, the party's presumptive nominee, said last week that he'd be glad to start digging the trench for it himself. ("Him with a shovel in his hands," Randy laughs. "I'd buy a ticket to see that.") He's also seen the pipeline become a flashpoint for the national environmental movement to the point where protesters against the project were arrested at the White House, and the president has delayed granting TransCanada the permit they need to proceed. He's seen the Nebraska state government roll over for TransCanada time and time again. But, mostly, he's found himself caught between what he used to believe about the government, and what he's seen it do in practice.

"I entered the fight to start with because I believe very strongly in our rights as American citizens to own property and not have other people taking it for their personal gain. Then, I broadened it as I found out more about the project and about the stuff that's going to be coming through the pipeline, and that all our rivers and streams have been put at risk."

Randy Thompson watched the government stand by, largely idle, while TransCanada bullied him and his neighbors with threatening letters, stonewalled about the effect of leaks on the fragile Sandhills region of Nebraska, and on the Ogallala aquifer, the massive underground reservoir, already imperiled by drought in some places, that services most of the arable farmland in the country, and through which the proposed pipeline will pass. He's laughed at the preposterous promises of an economic boom; at one point, TransCanada promised that the pipeline would provide 100,000 new jobs. It later was revealed that these jobs included employment in the "entertainment" industry that would spring up along the pipeline's route. "Strippers," Randy says. "They're talking about strippers. And temporary strippers at that."

He's had his eyes opened, Randy has, to the nexus of money and power that has corrupted our politics and led to the estrangement of the government from the people who are supposed to govern themselves. "The people who were supposed to be looking out for us," he says. "They were looking out for them." Once, while waiting to testify in Washington...

It all began in the fall of 2007, when a nice young man from a company called TransCanada got in touch with Randy about some land that Randy's family owned up in Merrick County, about 100 miles north of Martell, where he lives. Randy's parents had saved for years and finally bought the land in 1975. His mother was still living there at the time. Randy met the young man, who explained to him that TransCanada wanted to run a portion of the pipeline through the land, which is located for the most part on an island in the South Platte River.

"They were going to be very accommodating," Randy recalls. "The young man just briefly explained what they were thinking about putting this pipeline in. He said it was a Canadian company, so we were kind of, 'What the hell, this is a foreign company. What can they do?' They asked if they could come on the land and do a survey and I said, if you want to waste your time, go ahead, but you're still not coming across our land.

"That was a huge mistake. I never should have let them on the property at all."

From the start, Thompson was dubious about the whole thing. He asked if they could re-route the pipeline around his fields, so that there wouldn't be any danger of sinkholes forming in the middle of his crops. If they did that, he admits today, he might have signed the paper and let them bring the pipeline through. Instead, they told him that they "couldn't make 90-degree turns in their pipeline," a claim Thompson didn't quite believe. But his real concern was water.

"Being an island in the river," he explains, "we got really sandy soil and a very high water table. We got places where there's water standing on the ground. Out there on that land, if you drill down four feet, you hit water. In the spring, if I dig a post-hole three feet, I hit water. They're going to bury this thing four feet in the ground. That means it's going to be underwater, and they're telling me there's no risk? I've got an irrigation well that would be a few hundred feet from the pipeline, and a livestock watering pond. If it leaks into the water, what are we supposed to do? They make all those claims - they'll clean it up and all. Well, that's bullshit. We didn't even know what they wer putting in there. We know it's toxic."

Once the young man left, Thompson got on the computer and set himself to the task of learning about the project, and about the substance which TransCanada was so hellbent in carrying across his property. The more he learned about the toxic soup, the less he liked it. People called it the dirtiest carbon-based fuel in the world, and said that it was an ecological disaster from the moment it was literally boiled up out of the earth all the way to when it was refined and sold. He knew that the company already had run one pipeline through Nebraska which, not being an oil-producing state, never had any need to pass laws to do things like regulate oil pipelines. That one already had leaked 14 times, and there were people over in Seward who were fearful because of the proximity of that first pipeline to the town's municipal water supply. The first thing he did was formally rescind the permission he'd given the company to survey his land. His resistance to the project hardened the more he learned, and then TransCanada started playing hardball, and pissed him off for good.

The first letter came a couple of years ago. "They sent us this letter and it said, this is our final offer and, if you don't accept it, we're gonna take you to eminent-domain court," he recalls. He was stunned. How could a foreign corporation take his land through eminent domain? It didn't seem right to him, so he wrote a letter to the office of Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman with his questions and concerns. The governor's office shined him on.

"I asked a serious question - whether this company had the right to take me to eminent-domain court," Thompson says, "and he sends me back a damn form letter about the pipeline. I had a serious problem that needed to be addressed, and he sends me a damn form letter? That was when me, my brother, and my sister decided that they could go straight to hell. We're not signing anything until you get a damn permit for your project. They never did anything about it. They kept calling. It was three or four years of constant pestering.

"In the summer of 2010, we got another letter, saying the same thing. It was almost the same letter, but the arrogance was turned down a bit. I wrote them a rather lengthy letter saying exactly what I thought of them and their company. I got a few more contacts, and I started talking to some senators; [U.S.] Senator Mike Johanns stepped up and told them, 'You guys have got to stop bullying our landowners out there.' By then, I'd gotten involved with Jane and a lot of other people." Thompson also took his case to the media, here and in Canada, sharing with various reporters his correspondence with TransCanada. "Whatever the reason," he says. "They quit doing that crap. They knew they were on thin ice here."

The last contact Thompson had with TransCanada was just about a year ago, on May 23. He was supposed to go to Washington and testify again, but he missed his flight. That morning, he got word that his mother had passed away on the property up in Merrick County. He was just beginning to process the news when, with spectacularly bad timing, a TransCanada official called him to ask about the property again. Thompson blew him up. Then, a day or so later, at his mother's funeral, he saw that TransCanada had sent a bouquet. Thompson told the funeral director to throw the flowers away.

"I'd say the odds are stacked against us," says Randy Thompson, as we walk toward his barn while swallows dart and dance above us. He's seen the Nebraska state legislature do remarkable things in order to keep the project alive. When they opponents forced a special session of the famous unicameral legislature to address Nebraska's sudden need for regulations regarding oil pipelines, Thompson liked the bill the session produced, even though it contained an exemption for TransCanada. "It really had some teeth to it," he recalls. "There really were some protections for landowners in it." Then, the president denied TransCanada the permit. This should have eliminated the exemption for the company that had been built into the new law, and make TransCanada subject to the new regulatory regime.

"They decided they couldn't do that, so they tried to put through a bill, LB-1161, to make TransCanada exempt from new law. They brought it out of committee and found out it was totally unconstitutional, so they kept tinkering and amending. It was like a circus up there." TransCanada executives and lobbyists were all over the place. Finally, it was decided that the easiest thing to do was to defang the new law that had been passed in the first place, and that's what they did.

"I couldn't believe they'd do that," Thompson says. "What they did in the first bill was to say that, in order for any pipeline to get eminent domain, it had to have a federal permit - that at least they had to have a permit to be in our country. The new bill is written so the governor makes that decision. And he doesn't seem to give a shit. He says, well, the polls say 70 percent of Nebraskans support the building of this pipeline, but what happens when you give them the truth about it, instead of what the politicians and the oil companies say. What does the U.S. get from this? We charge them nothing to come across our whole country and then they refine it and ship to to a tax-free export zone. What the hell do we get? Some property taxes and some strippers for three or four months.

"Our political leaders have presented this so dishonestly. It's about energy security? Bullshit. The oil's not even guaranteed to stay in this country. It's going out on the open market. They come out with polls saying Americans want this pipeline. Yeah, because they've heard all this bullshit. How many politicians have this coming through their backyard?"

(In Kansas, thanks to that state's legislature, they don't even get the property taxes. In 2006, in response to threats by TransCanada to bypass the state entirely, Kansas adopted a law partially exempting TransCanada from paying state property taxes. This came to light only this year and there was mild hell to pay. What is the matter with Kansas, anyway?)

Randy's two horses move sluggishly as the midday heat begins to come down on the land like a hammer on an anvil. One of them, his old roping horse, got kicked in the head a while back and lost an eye. We spend a little time in the barn and then walk back uphill toward the house. It is somewhat revelatory to someone from a place where land is a parcel on which your house sits to hear someone talk about the land as though it is something so very much more than a commodity to be bartered and sold, and traded, and, without any real explanation, lost. Down through the long green cut, through the thickening haze of the day, the Nebraska state capitol looks hazier and less distinct, and far distant from the concerns of the land. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+92 # DurangoKid 2012-05-07 15:22
Keystone XL has always been about getting oil to the world markets to get the best price. Even if the product shipped through the KXL doesn't go offshore, it will still be priced as such.

The whole energy security is just a bunch of b.s. We're entering the era of post peak oil. There is no such thing as energy security anymore. Expect price volatility in the near term and supply disruptions in the not so near term. Anyone who promises this can be avoided is selling something. Something you probably don't want.
-54 # edge 2012-05-07 18:20
Where it goes matters not one bit!

If the Middle East blows up then we still have oil...yes it will be very expensive but we would have a supply. That IS energy security.

The fact of the matter is oil companies use the cheapest oil that is available and of the proper kind for that refinery.

If the North Slope Alaskan oil goes to Japan because it is cheaper to ship that oil there than it is to Brent Crude on the East coast.
It would be moronic to insist that Alaskan oil be used and the consumer would have to pay much more at the pump.
+8 # Bodiotoo 2012-05-08 07:53
YOU THINK IF THE MIDDLE EAST "BLOWS UP"...there will be no oil left? Really?
Maybe the oil being pulled out of the earth in the Gulf of Mexico can be bought. Maybe oil companies will have to change thier thinking...and when there is a serious disruption in oil supply alternates forms of energy will get a better footing.
+9 # Reductio Ad Absurdum 2012-05-08 10:30
Come off it with the scare tactics — people who read this column have brains. "If the Middle East blows up" we will TAKE the oil from wherever and whomever we need to take it. "We don' need no stinkin' pipeline," amigo, we have the world's greatest military industrial complex — just ask a neocon how that works.
-6 # RLF 2012-05-08 06:08
Here's a Rethug that would be screaming in favor of the pipeline if it didn't go over his land. A good example of the dumbass rep. out there who don't pay any attention to THE TRUTH!
+2 # Bodiotoo 2012-05-08 11:15
RLF, rather than slamming a republican that has opened his eyes, how about a bit of support and getting another R to join in...I find the biggest problem with republicans/rig hties is they do not hear the other side's arguments...and then weigh it out...and the far left is pretty much the lets start thinking about really working on solution rather than bad mouthing positions.
+48 # Lisa Moskow 2012-05-07 15:39
Thanks for the real story!

Our government has been giving away more than the XL pipeline permission to Canadian companies. Many mining rights also.

Then they put a protestor who made a false bid at an auction in jail! Tim Christopher.

Shame on them. We can impeach.
+48 # jlohman 2012-05-07 15:43
Indeed this is all bullshit. The truth is, it is profitable and the corporate class are willing to share the profits with the politicians that make it all happen. That is true on 100% of our issues. It doesn't happen unless campaign bribes flow.

But we sheeple keep voting in the same group of bastards, when only a 100% turnover in November will fix it.
+36 # Ray Kondrasuk 2012-05-07 16:07
Where can I help a bit by purchasing a Randy T-shirt?
+70 # BLBreck 2012-05-07 16:07
May more and more US citizens like Randy Thompson get just as pissed off about this! Let's show these big corporations that the American people are NOT as stupid or apathetic as they think and will fight against their lies and their dirty business! We can't eat or drink money...especia lly when it all ends up in the hands of the 1% anyway! Ask the people who leased their land for fracking.
+18 # Majikman 2012-05-07 22:18
Randy Thompson is/was a repug who believed his party line...until he did his own investigations. Amazing how the repugs change their tune when they learn the facts.
+46 # grouchy 2012-05-07 16:14
Guess what folks, it's called spinning, spinning, spinnig (ie lying) and it's how we were scammed into the Iraq war and kept into that war--and carry out many other evil acts. So, we need to get middle America wise to that crap and stop letting the greedheads always get their way! A good way to counter-sell their spin is to broadcast what their nonsense costs each of us in the wallet!
0 # SOF 2012-05-10 02:25
You're right, people would oppose Keystone and fracking if they knew the truth. Which is why people have been trying since the beginning to get the issue reported -some success. But have you listened to the spin FOX puts on it. Bad enough we can't get investigations, or corp media reporting, but we have twists and omissions and lies -without 'The Press', legislators, or states challenging them at all.!! Much easier to villify the environmentalis ts and take the $$$$$$.
+63 # Kimberly999 2012-05-07 16:35
Oil production peaked in the 70s and traditional well production has slowed since then. This is a huge oil corporation boondoggle that jeopardizes water for 17 midwestern states, does not guarantee any extra oil to the US. By ending the pipeline in a "free trade zone" will not even allow the US to collect taxes on it. Trans-Canada averages 1 leak per months on existing pipeline. The US State Dept report estimates less than 200 permanent jobs will be generated by this. This whole thing is a risky, immoral screw-job.
+7 # DurangoKid 2012-05-07 21:16
Check this out:

It's a list of all the nations that are now past peak oil production. It's a pretty big club. Sooner or later everyone joins it.
+27 # Buddha 2012-05-07 17:02
Perhaps he should recognize that his party, the GOP, are selling him up the river? Of course, too many of the Dems are too. Our entire system is bought and paid for by corporate interests like this.
+32 # Rita Walpole Ague 2012-05-07 17:35
I certainly relate to Randy, and honor him for his courage and determination. I too, an early retiree, became an 'accidental activist', and it's going on ten years now that I've been speaking up and out, over and over, and putting back on either my old legal hat or even older journalism hat, in order to stand up for real McCoy liberty and justice and peace for all, and for so hard to come by truth.

More and more folks are, today in 2012, waking up to the evil staph infection of greed and power addiction that's overcome us here in the U.S. and around the globe. Destroy the environment and enslave we the 99% they do, as they make war/war/war, oil spills, pipelines, fracking, war on workers and women to remove our rights, stripping away of bare survival provision (i.e. Soc. Sec., Med/Med, regs. on soooooo much, fair taxation, etc. evil etc.).

Needed? Revolution - it's the solution!
+21 # genierae 2012-05-07 18:01
What goes around, comes around. The ancestors of these ranchers stole their land from the native people, and now they know how it feels to have no rights. My concern is not for the landowners but for the health of the land itself, and the well-being of all the wild creatures that live on it. Cows are bad for the land, causing erosion by overgrazing, and beef is notoriously bad for you. The best result would be to let the native people come back to their ancestral home and teach us how to be good stewards of the land. They know how to live in harmony with nature.
-5 # Bodiotoo 2012-05-08 07:58
Seriously? Do not doubt that grazing has a negative in plant life, soil etc...but the native Americans didn't exactly tend the land...they were a stone age culture, plains indians becoming nomadic after the introduction of the horse...small independent tribes over the entire continent. Not exactly land managers...and to accuse a rancher od selling...yes we all know the is world history of expanding cultures...a little simplistic.
+9 # genierae 2012-05-08 17:42
I didn't say that Native Americans were farmers, I said that they were "good stewards of the land". But I really don't think the white man is teachable. In his unawakened state, he has no passion for nature, he only wants to dominate and destroy it for his own selfish ends. And so unless and until he wakes up, we are on a suicidal slide into total chaos. We all know the history? Which history are you referring to Bodiotoo? The crap we learned in school? White man propaganda to justify genocide and grand theft? What you call "world history of expanding cultures", I call wars of aggression against a people who were no match for our advanced weaponry. They were superior to us in every way but that. I find it hard to believe that you really know what white Europeans did to the Native Americans. Actually Bodiotoo, I think your knowledge of the Redman is "a little simplistic".
+5 # DurangoKid 2012-05-07 18:04
This is just another example of why CAPITALISM MUST GO!
+24 # jlohman 2012-05-07 18:17
No, regulated capitalism is okay, it's corrupt capitalism that must go.
+5 # Bodiotoo 2012-05-08 11:16
Quoting jlohman:
No, regulated capitalism is okay, it's corrupt capitalism that must go.

I agree, capitalism unchecked is a problem, proper regulation can rise all boats with the tide.
+18 # noitall 2012-05-07 18:44
It's all about one hand washing the other; no patriotic concern or an inkling of loyalty to the Country, Canadian OR American, the only loyalty is to their corporate bosses and CASH! These political leaders that are driving this forward should all be identified, investigated, and impeached for their breach of oath, mis-guided loyalty, and their greed-fed "confusion" of who they serve.
+25 # wcandler1 2012-05-07 19:26
"Flowers that don't usually bloom until June are in full blossom, and the butterflies have come early." That right, because of global warming, caused by increased atmospheric CO2, caused by burning fossil fuels: We have to STOP using fossil fuels, and do not need the pipeline.
-11 # rhgreen 2012-05-07 20:12
I sympathize with this, on environmental grounds. But please be economically intelligent. There is a world market for oil and whether the oil that will go down the XL pipeline stays in the US is irrelevant. It's Canadian oil that isn't staying in Canada, to start with. Even before the Tar Sands project Alberta oil was mostly exported, not sent to eastern Canada which is the biggest Canadian market. It has always been more cost-effective to send it to the US midwest, bank the $$, and buy Middle Eastern or Nigerian or Venezuelan oil for the eastern Canadian market. Same with Tar Sands oil going down the XL Pipeline. The point about security (which someone has already commented) is that it's oil that's available in a crisis. Until the crisis, of course the oil will go to where the demand/price is greatest/highes t, just as Alberta oil (after satisfying the relatively small western Canadian demand) has always been exported. All the capitalist-bash ing aside, if Canada and the US both had socialist governments it wouldn't work any differently. Neither Iran nor Venezuela sit on their oil - they sell it at the going world price and bank the $$ to use for other things. Of course in a world oil crisis they would be happy that they had their own oil.
+11 # anyon 2012-05-08 00:00
Quoting rhgreen:
I sympathize with this, on environmental grounds. But please be economically intelligent. etc.

This is the "economic intelligence" that has us in the UK living on an island (with one tunnel to "Continental Europe" and unable to build ships. It was cheaper to lose the tools and skills and buy the "product" from Korea. It would be harder, but you could live out your life without oil: you would only last a few days without potable water.
+27 # chrisconnolly 2012-05-07 21:39
One of the big differences between us and say Venezuela and now Argentina is that their oil, as all natural resources should be, is that it is nationalized. That means the people benefit from the proceeds. Are we really benefiting from private industry confiscating lands through eminent domain for private profit? The GOP is indeed selling us up the river for profit. Its good to hear that there is a sensible republican who can see the writing on the wall.
+5 # seeuingoa 2012-05-08 02:07
Thumbs up to Randy and good luck.
Thumbs down to Obama and no good luck.

Vote Green/Alternative/Independent

and then


Gandhi style:

Step 1: Sit down and get arrested

Step 2: When released, repeat Step 1.

Overload the whole system.
Where will they put all these people?

Concentration Camps?

and show their true face.

(google Gandhi and see how he managed)
+12 # tclose 2012-05-08 08:09
It goes almost unnoticed here that Pres. Obama took a lot of heat when he went against the entrenched interests of energy corporations and put a hold on the XL pipeline going across the Ogallala aquifer. He was the only one to take this step - not the State of Nebraska, not the Congress, etc.

Think of what "Pres." Romney would have done.
+1 # Shewi9 2012-05-08 12:09
I Stand With Randy t-shirts are sold here: #NoKXL
-2 # moby doug 2012-05-09 08:21
As far as I can tell, Randy is STILL in the Petrocratic, I mean the Republican, Party. Some mules don't get it no matter how many times you whap 'em in the head with a two by four.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.