Why It’s Called ‘The New Yorker’

When The New Yorker magazine searched for the reason the federal government delayed the Keystone XL oil pipeline, it didn't look in Nebraska.

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According to Jane Mayer, writing this week in The New Yorker magazine, Bill McKibben was the one who jammed a stick into the spokes of the fast-rolling Keystone XL pipeline and brought it to a halt.

Oh, there may have been a few ranchers out there somewhere who objected. Some “cowboys and Indians” attended a hearing or two, Mayer wrote. These unnamed people who lived, well, somewhere, Mayer never tells us, were allotted one sentence in her 1,100-word “Talk of the Town” piece. 

And they certainly had little to do with stopping the pipeline that was to carry oil sands oil from Alberta, Canada, across the Great Plains and down to the Gulf of Mexico. 

A great (and now clichéd) New Yorker magazine cover is Saul Steinberg’s 1976 “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” (See the next page.) It’s a New Yorker’s map of the U.S. 

There’s great detail (buildings, streets, people) until you hit the Hudson River. Everything beyond is either New Jersey or something flat, unpopulated and cactus-covered until you reach the Pacific Ocean.

Another way of telling the Keystone story would have ranchers and farmers in Nebraska as the primary characters. It was only after landowners on the Great Plains began to object to Keystone, saying a pipeline spill could ruin the vital Ogallala Aquifer, that the project was stalled, after all. 

But Nebraska gets about as many mentions in Mayer’s article as in Steinberg’s map. This is The New Yorker, after all, and Mayer gives us a view of the Keystone debate from 9th Avenue. Everything in the middle of the country is missing. 

Mayer’s leading character is McKibben, an author (and, yes, a former New Yorker writer) who teaches at a Vermont College. In Mayer’s telling, McKibben was talking to James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, about Keystone, the pipeline that would ship oil sands oil from Canada through the Great Plains to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Saul Steinberg
Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker magazine cover was a dig at New York’s myopic vision of the world. Steinberg mentions Nebraska once in his cartoon. Jane Mayer manages two mentions of Nebraska in an 1100-word article about an oil pipeline that died in the state’s Sand Hills.
“What would be the effect on the climate” should the carbon trapped in the oil sands be burned and released into the atmosphere, McKibben asked the scientist. “Essentially, it’s game over for the planet,” Hansen answered.

McKibben and a handful of environmental activists got busy. They knew that the U.S. State Department had to grant a permit for the pipeline to continue, so they began putting pressure on the Obama administration to deny the request. They staged demonstrations near the White House this summer and more than a thousand were arrested. 

The summer opposition seemed to have little effect, according to Mayer. Then, on November 6th 12,000 people encircled the White House. President Obama was out (playing golf, it was reported), “but the message evidently got through to him,” Mayer wrote. “Four days later, he issued a statement saying that the decision on the pipeline permit would be delayed until at least 2013, pending further environmental review.” 

There you go. The demonstrators appear in Washington and, presto, the pipeline is stopped. That’s not all. “Since then (the demonstration), TransCanada (the company building Keystone), which previously insisted that no other pipeline route was feasible, has announced a new route through Nebraska,” Mayer reported. Just like that, the route changed. 

What happens if we put the middle of the country back into the picture? First, we’d see that Nebraskans were concerned about the pipeline all along. The route TransCanada had chosen cut through Nebraska’s Sand Hills and over the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas. A spill could ruin a good chunk of the Sand Hills and cause havoc with the Ogallala. 

Over 1,000 Nebraskans showed up at a State Department hearing in Atkinson, Nebraska, in late September, most to oppose Keystone. Republican politicians aren’t known for opposing energy projects — and they care even less for what East Coast environmentalists say or do — but the agitation in Nebraska was strong enough that Republican Gov. Dave Heineman in August was telling TransCanada it needed to change the route through the Sand Hills. State Sen. Ken Haar was calling for a special session of the legislature to give the state more power to control Keystone. The Nebraska Farmers Union opposed the pipeline and so did thousands of workaday ranchers.

None of this was secret. InsideClimate News, Nebraska newspapers and others covered these events. Here is a story on the hearing, and you can see all of InsideClimate News stories here

Following the hearing in Atkinson, TransCanada knew it had trouble in Nebraska. In October, the company offered the state a $100 million bond to insure cleanup of any spill. Nobody in Nebraska was impressed. By October 24, Gov. Heineman had decided to call a special session of the state legislature to pass a law that would force TransCanada to change the route of the Keystone pipeline away from the Sand Hills and the Ogallala. Any change in the pipeline’s route would delay the entire project, according to a Reuters story. Gov. Heineman knew that. He called the legislature to Lincoln on October 28. 

The Obama campaign did hear from environmentalists all over the country, just as Mayer writes. But it was only after Nebraska acted — after Nebraska ranchers organized, the Nebraska Farmers Union weighed in and the Nebraska governor called an eager Nebraska legislature to Omaha — that the State Department announced on November 11th that it was delaying its decision for a year.

Why did the State Department say it was delaying its decision? So TransCanada could find a new route through Nebraska.

In Mayer’s article, the word “Nebraska” appears only twice.

Bill Bishop is co-editor of The Daily Yonder.

 

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