Susan and Bill Dunavan spent Friday morning listening to the sound of chainsaws ripping through wood.
When she went inside their York County home for a break, the phone was ringing.
A reporter wanted to know if she'd comment on President Barack Obama's pending rejection of the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I said that until he actually does, I’m not making any statements,” said the landowner who has fought against the project for seven years. “You hear rumors all the time; we didn’t realize the president was actually going to follow through with a decision.”
After months of speculation, Obama announced Friday morning he is denying the permit TransCanada needed to build the $8 billion pipeline across the border between the United States and Canada.
Citing the urgency of climate change, Obama appeared with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden to say the pipeline would have neither been the economic silver bullet proponents said in terms of job creation and lower gas prices nor the environmental disaster opponents claimed.
For the farmers and ranchers who fought to keep the pipeline out of the ground and put Nebraska at the epicenter of the national debate over climate change, the news came as a shock.
“We feel kind of numb because we’ve been working on this so many years,” said Susan Dunavan, who testified at state and federal public hearings, attended countless rallies, wrote letters to politicians and newspapers and has been a plaintiff in two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of state law.
Still, she's not ready to say it's a wrap.
“We know that it’s not over. TransCanada could reapply at any moment.”
TransCanada has easement agreements with 91 percent of landowners along the proposed route of the Keystone XL, and the easements remain in place even though the cross-border permit has been denied.
The company could wait until after the November 2016 presidential election and start over, or it could try to build a pipeline from just south of the U.S.-Canadian border.
The company spent past seven years and $2.4 billion dollars trying to push through the 1,179-mile Keystone XL, which would have stretched from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City in Nebraska near the Kansas border, where it would have connected with existing pipelines. It would have carried up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Most of the oil would be bitumen made from Canada’s oil sands, although as many as 100,000 barrels of space would have been saved for oil produced from Bakken shale that lies beneath North Dakota and Montana.
Bold Nebraska Director Jane Kleeb called the president's decision and the campaign against the Keystone XL a game changer for environmentalists.
For years, she said, she heard political allies and public relations specialists call the fight a lost cause. But in the end, Kleeb said, Nebraskans did the seemingly impossible.
"Instead of siding with Big Oil, the President chose to stand with farmers, ranchers, tribes and Pipeline Fighters everywhere working to protect our land, water and climate for our grandchildren,” she said. “VICTORY!!”
The project had support from Nebraska Republicans and labor groups. Last year, 34 state senators, more than two-thirds of the state Legislature, signed a letter urging Obama to approve the project.
“Keystone XL would have brought good-paying jobs and much-needed tax revenue to Nebraska’s counties," Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a statement on Friday. "President Obama’s politically motivated decision to reject this project puts the jobs and this tax revenue at risk.”
Polls showed most of the state’s residents supported building the pipeline.
Bob Hilger, a 70-year-old alfalfa farmer from David City, supported the effort for the jobs it would create, the taxes it would bring to local governments and schools and the fact it would supply oil from a friendly trade partner.
TransCanada’s original Keystone pipeline, which began pumping oil in 2010, runs under Hilger’s land.
“It just baffles me,” he said of Obama's decision. “The bottom line is, it’s all political.”
A determined group of Nebraskans fought the project, miring the process in legal battles that caused numerous delays.
Earlier this week, as it looked more and more likely Obama would reject the pipeline, TransCanada tried its own delay tactic, asking for the federal review process to be paused because of ongoing efforts to get the route in Nebraska approved by the state Public Service Commission. The U.S. State Department rejected the request Wednesday.
TransCanada filed an application with the PSC on Oct. 5 in an effort to end two lawsuits brought by landowners challenging the constitutionality of a law that let the company bypass the PSC and get approval of its route and use of eminent domain powers from the governor.
Attorneys for the owners of about 60 properties in the path of the pipeline have pledged to continue those suits.
“The president’s decision does not affect legal challenges filed by our Nebraska landowner clients challenging the constitutionality of a law that grants TransCanada eminent domain rights to take land of Nebraskans," said Dave Domina, the Omaha attorney who led the lawsuits.
Nebraska PSC Legal Counsel Nichole Mulcahy declined to speculate on what Obama’s decision means for the routing application in Nebraska, saying that depends on what TransCanada decides to do next.
TransCanada spokesman Mark Cooper said the company is analyzing the decision and determining its next steps.
A decade ago, the permitting application would have been routine. The first Keystone pipeline -- which stretches 2,147 miles from Hardisty into Illinois – was proposed in 2005 and got a green light from then-President George W. Bush in three years.
But growing awareness of global warming and activism turned the Keystone XL into a litmus test for politicians. Opponents said it would exacerbate climate change by encouraging development of Canadian oil sands and endanger groundwater and ecologically sensitive landscapes like the Nebraska Sandhills.
Project proponents touted job creation and said it would provide oil from a reliable U.S. ally.
During his seven-minute statement on Friday, Obama rejected claims the pipeline would lower gas prices or significantly affect the nation’s economy. Instead, he said it would have created few permanent jobs and would exacerbate climate change.
A U.S. State Department review found project would contribute about .02 percent to annual economic activity across the nation.
Obama said the pipeline had begun to play an over-inflated role in American discourse as a symbol used as a political cudgel by both parties and an issue of contention between the U.S. and Canadian governments.
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change," he said. "Frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership. And that is the biggest risk we face.
“Today we continue to lead by example. Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this earth from becoming not only inhospitable, but uninhabitable, in our lifetimes we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them."
A disappointed TransCanada said the decision was based on misplaced symbolism over merit and science.
“Rhetoric won out over reason,” TransCanada President and CEO Russ Gerling said in an emailed statement.
“It is disappointing the administration appears to have said yes to more oil imports from Iran and Venezuela over oil from Canada, the United States’ strongest ally and trading partner, a country with rule of law and values consistent with the U.S.”
Gerling said the decision ignores the value of the jobs the pipeline would create and cannot be reconciled with the actual conclusions of the State Department’s comprehensive seven-year review of the project.
“The State Department’s review presented compelling evidence that clearly should have satisfied the President’s stated test that Keystone XL would not significantly exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
Obama said he spoke with newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before announcing that the Keystone XL would not be in the United State’s national interest.
“And while he expressed his disappointment, given Canada’s position on this issue, we both agreed that our close friendship on a whole range of issues, including energy and climate change, should provide the basis for even closer coordination between our countries going forward,” Obama said.
The president said the United States must come up with new ways and technologies to transition to a clean energy economy.
Secretary of State Kerry said both Canadian and U.S. officials are committed to bilateral relations.
“The reality is that this decision could not be made solely on the numbers – jobs that would be created, dirty fuel that would be transported here, or carbon pollution that would ultimately be unleashed,” Kerry said in a statement. “I am confident that our close and long-standing relationship with Canada will continue to grow stronger in the years ahead.”
Meanwhile, pipeline fighters in Lincoln celebrated Friday night with a rally at Vega in the Haymarket.