HASTINGS — When Jane Kleeb started the small advocacy group she named Bold Nebraska in March 2010, the Southern Florida transplant knew nothing of the Keystone XL pipeline or the Canadian company that wants to build it across the American heartland.
“When we started Bold, to be quite frank, energy and the environment were not on our radar,” Kleeb said during a recent interview from the living room of the ranch home near Hastings she shares with her husband.
Four years later, Bold Nebraska has become synonymous with opposition to TransCanada’s plans to bury 275 miles of pipeline through more than 500 private properties in this state.
The $5.4 billion pipeline proposal proved a platform to launch Bold to statewide and national prominence, and an effective rallying point for building coalitions and mobilizing activists. The group's biggest event yet, a concert featuring Neil Young and Willie Nelson, is planned for Sept. 27 at a Neligh-area farm that is in the path of the pipeline.
Yet it remains to be seen whether Bold can turn that momentum into policy victories and be a lasting force in Nebraska politics.
University of Nebraska political science Professor John Hibbing has built a career on predicting Republicans will win elections in Nebraska, and he’s skeptical one movement or one group could change the state’s dynamics.
“But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try,” Hibbing said. “The left in Nebraska needs whatever it can get to solidify itself and generate new candidates. In that sense, Bold has served a purpose. It has put some people on that map, especially Jane Kleeb.”
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Jane Kleeb married into Nebraska politics.
She met Scott Kleeb, who is now president of the company Energy Pioneer Solutions, in 2005 as he campaigned for the congressional seat representing Nebraska’s massive 3rd District. Known as Jane Fleming at the time, she headed up the Young Democrats of America and was already an occasional guest on network news shows, taking on the likes of conservative commentator Ann Coulter.
Scott Kleeb, who generally stays away from Bold events, lost the 2006 race, and the couple married a few months later.
In 2008, Jane Kleeb led the Nebraska branch of Change Network, a national political advocacy group, rallying voters to pressure U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson into supporting Obamacare.
“I really started to see there wasn’t big urban and rural divide in Nebraska as people liked to say there was when you started talking about issues,” Kleeb said.
She began talking with progressives in the state about the need for a permanent group to aggressively press issues that span the political divide. She wanted to show people activism could be fun, and politicians don’t belong on pedestals.
With a donation from prominent Omaha Democrat Dick Holland, she got Bold Nebraska off to a bold start.
Holland continues to give, Kleeb said, but his contributions have shrunk annually and now make up only a small part of the budget. Bold reported about $455,000 in total contributions and grants in its 2013 tax filing.
Kleeb declined to release Bold’s donor list and noted the advocacy group on the other side of the Keystone XL issue, Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, doesn’t release its donor list.
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At first, Kleeb envisioned Bold’s key issues being about health care, local foods and reforming the state mental health care system.
Then a friend, Nebraska Wildlife Federation Director Duane Hovorka, asked her to go to a meeting about a pipeline in the spring of 2010. The proposed path cut across the migration routes of the Sandhills and whooping cranes and a trout watershed. Federation leadership worried about the devastation an oil spill could cause.
Kleeb was skeptical, but she went. It wasn’t an issue she thought would resonate with Nebraskans. Then she heard farmers talk about the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigation, ranchers angry over letters threatening eminent domain if they didn’t sign a lease, and conservationists lamenting the possibility of laboriously restored natural prairie being ripped up.
The next day she began posting about the pipeline on Facebook and other websites, trying to gauge interest. Bold began hosting meetings. People exchanged information, talked about easement offers.
TransCanada wants to pump 840,000 barrels of crude oil a day through the pipeline, most of it from the booming Alberta oil sands region. The exact cocktail of chemicals that would flow through the pipe isn’t publicly available, but it likely would include bitumen, a black sticky substance thinned by mixing in natural gas that has been pressurized to turn it into a liquid.
The underground line would run from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City on the southern Nebraska border, where it would meet up with existing pipelines. The Canadian company needs a presidential permit to build across the United States' northern border.
TransCanada says pipelines are the safest and most efficient way to transport oil, and that the Keystone XL — monitored by satellite and equipped with remotely controlled shut-off valves — would be the safest pipeline ever built on American soil.
But even technological marvels fail, its detractors say. A spill threatens private land, lives, wildlife and the Ogallala Aquifer, which touches eight states and underlies most of Nebraska, providing irrigation and drinking water.
A 2010 break in Enbridge’s 30-inch Line 6B pipe dumped 843,000 gallons of bitumen oil into a creek connected to the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan, and spread 35 miles downstream, forcing homes in the area to be evacuated and resulting in orders not to drink tap water. It is considered one of the most expensive oil spills in U.S. history, costing more than a billion dollars and with cleanup still ongoing four years later.
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When Nebraska lawmakers flocked to the state Capitol in January 2011 for the first day of the legislative session, 125 anti-pipeline activists representing about 10 different groups, including Bold Nebraska, greeted them, waving signs with slogans like “Windmills Not Oil Spills” and “Protect our Land and Water.”
One former state senator, Tony Fulton, remembers having read the name Bold Nebraska in newspapers before that, but the first time the group hit his radar was when Kleeb and a handful of supporters met with him in his Capitol office to talk about Keystone XL.
The conservative Republican expected raving environmentalists all but foaming at the mouth, incapable of compromise or understanding the other side of the argument.
But to his surprise, he said, they were rational and they made good arguments, even if he didn’t fully agree with them. And they got him thinking about the pipeline. Fulton had designed heat recovery steam generators before becoming a senator and felt that he had some expertise in the area as an engineer.
He began researching and writing letters to the U.S. State Department.
“They (the U.S. State Department) didn’t give us the time of day,” Fulton said.
So Fulton, aligned with Bold, turned to those who would listen: the media.
In August of that year, Gov. Dave Heineman asked President Barack Obama to reject Keystone XL over concerns about the well-being of the Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer.
Then in November 2011, Heineman called a special session of the Legislature. Senators, after hammering out an agreement that would move the path of the Keystone XL, passed laws giving the state a say in the approving pipeline routes for the first time.
While there were many players involved in the lead up to that special session, Fulton credits Bold with organizing much of the movement that pushed lawmakers to action.
“It is pretty hard to believe that this wouldn’t have gotten shoved down our throats if Bold had not been involved,” Fulton said.
The next year, senators amended the state’s Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act, allowing TransCanada to bypass the Nebraska Public Service Commission in favor of having its project reviewed by the state Department of Environmental Quality and approved by the governor.
Three landowners, including rancher Randy Thompson — whom Bold had made the face of the pipeline fight in Nebraska — sued and got Lancaster County District Judge Stephanie Stacy to declare the amended statute unconstitutional.
The Nebraska Supreme Court took up the case earlier this year, and the U.S. State Department put the Keystone XL’s presidential review on hold until it knows whether the Nebraska route is good.
The state Supreme Court sets its own schedule, but court watchers don’t expect a ruling until late this year or early next year, well after the November election.
Supporters of the Keystone XL in Nebraska have sought to cast Bold -- and Kleeb as its spokeswoman -- as an irrational bogyman opposed to the gusher of jobs and new tax revenue and friendly trade relations that would come with the pipeline.
Chris Peterson, spokesman for Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, pointed out it took only four years for the first Keystone pipeline to go from being proposed in 2005 to pumping oil across Nebraska.
“Bold Nebraska has fanned the flames of fear and anger among a small group of people,” Peterson said. “It benefits Bold Nebraska because it helps to boost their broader environmental agenda.”
TransCanada remains committed to the project and has spent $2.4 billion so far in trying to bring it to fruition.
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Kleeb has pledged to fight until the Keystone XL has been decided, but she has other dreams too. She would like to write a cookbook for those recovering from anorexia, an eating disorder she struggled with as a teenager.
In the meantime, her focus remains on Nebraska. She wants to keep Bold small, a community-level focused organizing and advocacy group. She doesn’t want to take it national or expand to other states.
When in need of office space in the Capitol City, Bold Nebraska shares with design company Rebel Red Media at South 13th and Washington streets.
But the majority of planning happens in living rooms and at kitchen tables. Kleeb and Bold’s two other full-time employees, Energy Director Ben Gotschall and Media Director Mark Hefflinger, work from their homes and on the road. Gotschall lives on a Raymond-area acreage and Hefflinger in Omaha.
Kleeb’s home is a two-level bungalow. A laptop computer, handwritten notes and a red coffee cup adorned an antique wood desk set along one wall of Kleeb’s living room last week, next to a couch buried under a buffalo hide and stacks of posters with #NOKXL written in bold white letters over scenic images of Nebraska and those who work the land.
While the Keystone XL makes up about 70 percent of Bold’s focus, the group published a guide for voters and has begun trying to expand its influence by endorsing political candidates.
The group created a political action committee, New Energy Voter, which posted $15,450 in receipts in its primary election statement filed with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
The same boots that march in Bold rallies are showing up at power district meetings as Bold pushes for investments in renewable energy, like wind turbines.
In a sign of the group’s growing influence, Niocorp Developments, another Canadian company, reached out to Bold and invited the group to attend public meetings it is holding about its proposed niobium mining project near Elk Creek. Fulton, who sits on Niocorp’s volunteer advisory committee, told the company it needs to be open with Nebraskans and recommended talking with Bold.