On pipelines and wind farms

A sign protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in Atkinson, Nebraska earlier this year (Photo by Jane Kleeb)

In a piece published by the New York Times today, Michael Levi correctly points out that Keystone XL opponents in Nebraska and Washington, D.C. were fighting entirely different fights for different reasons. And Levi warns that leveraging local opposition could backfire for environmentalists hoping to advance renewable energy projects in the future.

But what if these projects aren’t opposed in the first place?

Coincidentally, on the same day environmentalists celebrated the delay of Keystone XL, another fiercely contested energy project was allowed to proceed. Opponents of the Goodhue Wind project in Minnesota are vowing to take legal action after state regulators again refused to apply a restrictive local siting ordinance to the project.

It’s tempting to dismiss the Goodhue opposition as run-of-the-mill NIMBYism, but that’s an oversimplification – many have said they’d support a wind farm in Goodhue County under different circumstances. A more fundamental issue is that these folks simply don’t trust the developers, and whatever concerns they had in the beginning have only been amplified and intensified over time.

Contrast that with another wind farm we profiled in Michigan earlier this year. Gratiot County, as I’ve noted before, is similar to Goodhue County in a lot of ways. Yet organized opposition to this major wind project – the largest in the state – simply didn’t materialize. A key difference? The developer made a point of engaging with the community from the beginning, listening to their concerns and making them partners in the development process.

Which brings us back to Keystone XL. Why was the pipeline so deeply controversial in Nebraska, but not in neighboring states? One obvious reason is that the Ogallala Aquifer and the Sandhills hold symbolic and economic importance in Nebraska that people outside the state probably didn’t fully realize until now. Another is an effective, home-grown advocacy campaign led by Bold Nebraska‘s Jane Kleeb.

But where TransCanada really stepped in it was with the now infamous “Husker Pipeline” video. As Ted Genoways chronicled at length last week, by taking sacrosanct imagery of the state’s beloved Cornhusker football team and using it to market the pipeline inside Memorial Stadium, TransCanada only succeeded in further galvanizing opposition.

I’m not suggesting you can completely eliminate opposition to an energy or infrastructure project. But it’s becoming clear that, regardless of the project, developers who disregard the concerns of affected landowners and treat them as obstacles to overcome, rather than partners to engage, do so at their own peril.

The delay of the Keystone XL pipeline is a victory for environmentalists, but TransCanada’s own failure to earn cooperation and support in one of the most conservative states in the nation surely deserves some credit, too.

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