Most rural Nebraskans favor building the Keystone XL pipeline but think it should be built on a route that avoids the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer.
That’s the tone of 2,323 mailed responses to the most recent Nebraska Rural Poll.
The latest findings from the poll, now in its 17th year, were unveiled Tuesday by the Center for Applied Rural Innovation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in cooperation with the Nebraska Rural Initiative.
Some 65 percent of those who returned the polling form said the pipeline should be built outside the Sandhills and away from the Ogallala Aquifer. But 61 percent rejected the premise that it should not be built at all “because the environmental risks outweigh the economic benefits.”
Randy Cantrell, a rural sociologist at UNL, said the pipeline is one of the hotter topics he and his peers have addressed in poll history, but not the only one.
“We asked about food animal welfare last year, which is a pretty hot topic,” Cantrell said. “This year, honestly, we expected this to be over,” he said of the pipeline controversy. “But it turns out that it wasn’t.
“And it turned out that we were doing a series on opinions on land use and environment. And, boy, this sure seemed to fit with opinions on land use and environment, so we took a chance with it.”
Poll results emerge with the Keystone XL still under review by the U.S. State Department and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
The latest round of scrutiny for a pipeline that would connect Canadian oilsands with refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast followed the decision of pipeline builder TransCanada to shift the Nebraska portion of the route farther east.
John Hibbing, a political science professor at UNL, called a poll response rate above one in three (2,323 out of 6,350 randomly selected households) “quite remarkable.”
The sample base includes 84 non-metro counties and excludes Lancaster, Douglas and other counties surrounding Lincoln, Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa.
Hibbing acknowledged that a mail survey tends to draw most heavily from people who feel most strongly about a subject, because “you’ve got to be kind of committed to get your thoughts out there.”
But surveys done by phone and door-to-door have their own problems, and the Rural Poll response rate is “far better than you see on most telephone surveys.”
Sought out later Tuesday, both a TransCanada spokesman and a prominent Nebraska pipeline critic said they saw validation in the poll for their positions.
“We’re pleased to see the strong support reflected in the poll for building the pipeline,” said Shawn Howard of TransCanada. “That’s consistent with our discussion of the pipeline with Nebraskans.”
He said poll findings corresponded with the feedback the company and state officials got earlier this year in a series of public meetings along the proposed alternative route.
“People who came out were strongly in support of the pipeline,” he said. “They understood the importance of it and the fact that pipelines are critical to our way of life because of the products they carry.”
But Jane Kleeb of Hastings and Bold Nebraska said the poll outcome “shows that TransCanada’s multi-million dollar ad campaign is not penetrating like they’d hoped.”
The poll also underscores the need for more education about the environmental impact of extracting oil from sand deposits in Canada, Kleeb said. “The more citizens and landowners know about tarsands, the more opposed they are to it completely.”
Brad Lubben, part of the core group at UNL that interprets the poll, said it carries a message from Nebraskans that the pipeline should be built, but also that it should be built responsibly.
Lubben said there’s room to disagree about the extent to which the alternative route for the pipeline moves away from some of the state’s most sensitive natural resources.
In relation to the Sandhills map, for example, “it’s just east of the Sandhills, but it’s still pretty sandy.”
On the other hand, even if Keystone XL was put next to the first Keystone pipeline TransCanada put in operation in eastern Nebraska in 2010, “it still goes over reaches of the aquifer.”