NELIGH — Art and Helen Tanderup gazed with amazed smiles at the thousands of cars parked on the stubble of their recently harvested cornfield on Saturday, at the stage set up in their rye field and at the ocean of people standing in front of it.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s absolutely amazing this is happening,” said Art just before the start of Harvest the Hope.
The sun shone in a sky dotted with white clouds, and nearby corn rustled in a southern breeze on the 160-acre farm near Neligh, as fans waited to hear the concert’s headliners, Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young and country music star Willie Nelson.
Between performances by opening acts -- Native American hip-hop artist Frank Waln, and Lukas and Micah Nelson and Promise of the Real (featuring Willie Nelson’s sons) -- politicians and activists spoke to the crowd of about 8,000 about the fight against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
The Tanderups are two of about 100 landowners refusing to sign easement agreements with TransCanada Corp., the company that wants to build the controversial pipeline capable of transporting 840,000 barrels of crude oil per day, mostly from Canada’s tar sands region destined for refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Fighting the Keystone XL is only a small part of the bigger battle against a changing climate that is threatening the entire planet, Young said during a press conference before the concert.
“We’re really just a skirmish on the ground around a disaster that is waiting to happen," he said. "People are panicking and trying to figure out how to get out of this mess.
“We’re proud to be here with all of you, whether you agree with us or disagree with us, to have a discourse about what this is.”
Young said America must take up the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and turn to renewable energy generation.
“Stand up and be creative and have ingenuity and come up with solutions so we’re not just complaining about problems, we’re solving them," he said. "That is what America needs to do.”
The development of Canada’s tar sands is far from inevitable, said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group sponsoring the event.
“Tar sands is not regular oil," she said. "It’s dirtier. It’s nastier. It’s bad for our land and water when it spills, and it is bad for our climate when it is taken out of the ground. What is happening here in Nebraska is ground zero."
Brought together by their opposition to the pipeline project, environmentalists, land rights proponents, farmers, ranchers and Native Americans have revived a coalition dubbed the Cowboy Indian Alliance, with origins in protests against uranium mining in the 1970s.
Native leaders have pledged to stop the Keystone XL from crossing their sacred ancestral lands.
Rosebud Sioux President Cyril Scott and Oglala Lakota President Bryan Brewer, both from South Dakota, and tribal leaders from other nations promised their tribal warriors would physically stop the pipeline.
“We are not just going to protest and leave," Brewer said. "We’re going to stop it."
After Nelson and Young performed hourlong sets, including classic hits such as “Beer for my Horses” by Nelson and “Heart of Gold” by Young, audience members marched into the Tanderups' field and formed a human chain across where TransCanada wants to bury a 36-inch-diameter pipe.
Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, declined to speculate on how much money the event would raise to be split between her organization, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Cowboy Indian Alliance, as well as small clean-energy projects on farms and tribal lands, such as putting solar panels on center pivot irrigators.
Maybe more important than the dollars raised, said Ken Winston of the Sierra Club of Nebraska, is the attention the concert brings to continuing efforts to stop development of a 1,179-mile pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City on the Nebraska-Kansas border.
The fight against the Keystone XL in Nebraska already has garnered national attention, after a constitutional challenge to a state law approving the route brought the pipeline’s presidential permitting process to a halt.
But pipeline-fighters hope the support of two music legends will help spread their message beyond the nightly news, Winston said.
“TransCanada may have the money,” he said, “but we have the musicians and the poets.”
Ticket sales alone should generate about $385,000. Concertgoers paid $50 per person to attend the show, with the original 7,000 tickets sold out within days of Bold Nebraska announcing the event last month. An additional 500 tickets issued earlier this month sold out in 10 hours, and 200 more tickets were sold locally in Antelope County.
Charles Barber is one Nebraska farmer who didn’t go to the concert.
Barber grows row crops on 1,400 acres just north of the TransCanada oil pumping station in Steele City where the Keystone XL would end. The first Keystone pipeline, which began operation in 2010, runs under his fields.
He supports building the Keystone XL, which also would cross his land, and during a recent interview said TransCanada has been good to work with.
Barber said he laughed when he heard that Young and Nelson, two founders of the annual benefit concert Farm Aid, planned to come to Nebraska.
“This pipeline is going to help the farmers, and now (they are) against it,” Barber said.
Barber said the pipeline will bring construction jobs to Nebraska and oil from a friendly trade partner that will be turned into fuel to power tractors and combines.
TransCanda spokesman Mark Cooper said in an email that delays in getting the pipeline built mean more oil in the U.S. rail system, creating a bottleneck and hindering the transportation of farmers’ harvests.
“Delaying the Keystone XL means encouraging the loss of good jobs for Nebraskans and more than $20 million a year in annual property taxes to counties for schools, roads and other infrastructure once the Keystone XL is at full capacity,” Cooper said.
TransCanada needs a presidential permit to build the pipeline across the northern U.S. border. After six years, the permitting process is on hold until federal officials know whether the route through Nebraska is good.
The Nebraska Supreme Court is reviewing a lower court's decision finding the state’s Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act unconstitutional. It’s unlikely the state's high court will rule on the lawsuit, which was brought by three landowners, until later this year, probably after the November election.
Delays that have gone on for six years probably will mean the price tag for the pipeline will be double the $5.4 billion TransCanada previously projected, company officials have said.
TransCanada has already spent more than $2 billion on the project, including $50 million going to landowners for easement rights, signing bonuses, temporary work space and losses during the construction period.