“Nebraska is the last hope for stopping this,” says Art Tanderup, sitting on the lawn close to the solar panels that provide most of the energy to his farm. Spring comes a little earlier here than in South Dakota and Montana. The 2ft deep snow drifts that had blanketed the farmland melted a month ago, revealing acres of harvested corn stubble that is now being readied for replanting.
This year’s crop cycle brings with it a sense of unprecedented foreboding for Tanderup and his wife Helen, who returned to the century-old family farm in 2011, hoping for a quiet retirement.
The night of Donald Trump’s election brought tears here. “I thought: ‘Here we go again,’” says Helen. “We’re going to be fighting the Keystone pipeline again.”
The Tanderups’ farm, like many properties in the XL’s pathway in this state, sits above the Ogallala aquifer, which they depend on for their drinking and farm water. The pipeline would also come within 600ft of their farmhouse.
Their land had become something of a hub for resistance against the XL during the second term of the Obama administration. In recent summers crop artists had cut anti-XL artworks into the outlying corn fields, and in 2014 Neil Young and Willie Nelson headlined a protest concert on the field the XL is set to cross. The Tanderups stood at the side of the stage as 8,000 people watched the Canadian troubadour sing: “End fossil fuel, draw the line. Before we build one more pipeline”, lines from his newly written protest song Who’s Gonna Stand Up?
It may have taken years, but the former president eventually paid attention.
But Trump and his aggressive brand of “America first” nationalism bring with it a challenge the Tanderups can’t help but feel daunted by. The president has sold the project as a major job creator for the US – even though the facts don’t support all of his claims.
As Art says, the state of Nebraska, and more precisely its Public Service Commission, stands as the last major obstacle to TransCanada and the new president from getting shovels in the ground.
Unlike Montana and South Dakota, the XL has no approved pathway in the state of Nebraska and the commission, comprising five elected officials, is set to rule on the company’s proposal later this year. Public hearings are set for August, and Tanderup and a coalition of other resistant landowners are preparing to lobby hard.
The suggested route has already been moved once, back in 2012, to avoid the fragile ecosystem of the Nebraska Sandhills. But the new route still crosses the massive underground aquifer, and the Tanderups maintain their sandy, porous soil means their land should still be considered part of the Sandhills region.
At present, around 90 landowners along the proposed route are holding out against the Canadian company as eminent domain will not be enforceable unless the plan is approved. They plan to sue if it is.
TransCanada say they have signed easements with 91% of property owners along the route in Nebraska.
Just outside the town of Neligh, a quiet farming town in the north-east of the state, the Tanderups’ land is the first stop in the last state of the Guardian’s journey along the proposed XL route.
“Someday we’d like to see our grandchildren here,” says Art. “But if that pipeline’s sitting out there in that ground, every time you take a drink, you’ll be scared, because you don’t know if the next morning you aren’t going to wake up because you drank something you shouldn’t.
“They will have to bulldoze me over before they can come on my property.”
But fear is coupled with frustration under this new administration. The XL pipeline is tied to Trump’s nationalism not just through shaky claims of energy independence, but also promises of job creation and rebooting American manufacturing.
“If we can get that pipeline built,” Trump said on his fourth day in office as he signed memoranda encouraging TransCanada to reapply for a permit the Obama administration had rejected, it would bring “a lot of jobs; 28,000 jobs. Great construction jobs.”
A few weeks before the state department approved TransCanada’s renewed application, Trump told the annual Conservative Political Action Conference: “If they want a pipeline in the United States, they’re going to use pipe that’s made in the United States.” The president had already formalised this requirement by executive order.
Along the route, countless local business owners and politicians have touted these claims as the dominant factor guiding their support for the construction.
“If you created just 10 jobs here,” said Rusty Foster, a Perkins County commissioner in South Dakota, “that would be a big impact to the economy.” (Foster is another of those local officials denying the science of climate change: “It says in the Bible the world’s going to come to an end. You may be able to prolong it. I don’t think so. God will decide when it’s over.”)
“I want to see ‘American made’ again. That’s what I love,” said Vivian Sounder, owner of the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, South Dakota, comparing the pipeline and its use of American steel to the 275 American built classic cars housed in her showroom.
But the reality is different. In March, the administration clarified that the XL will be exempt from Trump’s directive on the use of American-produced materials, as TransCanada had already signed production contracts for the pipe. Half of the steel will come from an Indian-owned plant in Arkansas, while the remaining 50% will be imported from India, Canada and Italy.
Trump’s claims on job creation were also misleading. According to analysis published by the president’s state department, the pipeline will create around only 3,900 direct construction jobs, with a total workforce of 16,100. There will be an additional 26,000 jobs created indirectly by the project. Pivotally, almost all of these positions are temporary, projected to last two years at most. Estimates suggest just 50 permanent jobs will be created by the construction.
TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said the company agreed with the state department projections.
A meeting memo, seen by the Guardian in the town of Baker, Montana, showed TransCanada did not provide firm estimates to town officials over the number of local people who would be offered work by the pipeline. It also shows that, despite continuing legal battles and ongoing route proposals in Nebraska, TransCanada have briefed officials they could start construction on a number of pump stations along the route in 2018, with a view to pipeline construction between 2019 and 2020.
The 175-mile journey south from the Tanderups’ farm is littered with small towns that mark a contrast to the vast, open expanses in South Dakota and Montana. Starlings chirp from trees that are already budding in spring. Lutheran and Baptist churches tower over many buildings here, rivaled mostly by the football posts that stand on immaculately kept high school playing fields.
In the town of Fairbury, just 12 miles from the XL’s final destination, Sharon Priefert, a member of the local chamber of commerce, is holding a “swine and wine” tasting event for their members. The pork has been slow-roasting since 3am, and a large crowd queues up to fill their plates.
A decade ago the first Keystone pipeline passed close to this area, and Priefert recalls fondly how it led to jobs in a town where the population has declined by half since the Rock Island railroad closed up. The line, forever enshrined by the eponymous folk spiritual later performed by Johnny Cash and Lonnie Donegan, had kept a regional headquarters here until the 1970s.
Priefert’s own stepson took a job on the pipeline, which has led to a decades long career in seasonal construction work. She knows from experience that the expected boom here will be not permanent and expresses a general unease over the Trump presidency, despite voting for him in 2016. Nonetheless, she backs the project to the hilt, citing it as clear example of a promise the president has actually managed to deliver in his first 100 days. “In a community like ours, there is always people looking for part-time, temporary positions,” she says.
The XL’s final stop, Steele City, appears on planning maps as a giant dot in the south-east of the state. The image is something of an anticlimax. The village, named after former railroad president Dudley M Steele upon foundation in 1873, has a population of just 56 people and is eerily quiet.
The only local business, the Salty Dog Saloon, already does fantastic trade, drawing travelling bikers, passing construction workers and locals from the surrounding area, to sample the home cooked burgers and blues that booms from the jukebox.
Owner Margo D’Angelo knows the new pipeline will not bring her any significant financial rewards, but backs the development almost as a reflex reaction.
“It alone is not going to make America great again,” she says. Then she checks herself. “I mean, I think it’s already great.”
D’Angelo was perhaps the most ambivalent person the Guardian encountered after over 1,600 miles of road covered along the route. For those whose futures are vested in the prospective construction, the battle lines are already being drawn, and many are preparing for another long, exhausting fight. Though these people may be separated by hundreds of miles, their political allegiances and state boundaries – their futures are likely to be tied together by the winding steel of the Keystone XL pipeline.
About a quarter-mile up the road is the TransCanada pump station where the XL is set to link with the existing Keystone. It hums quietly on top of a hill where it is surrounded by wind turbines that emit red flashing lights as darkness rolls in.
Around this time last year the pipeline had leaked further up its route in South Dakota, spilling nearly 17,000 gallons of oil. It was discovered, not by leak detection technology, but by a passerby who spotted oil seeping to the surface.
This article was amended on 4 May 2017 to correct the timing of the leak of almost 17,000 gallons of oil to make clear this was in 2016.
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