Jane Kleeb takes her Honda Odyssey across the highways and back roads of Nebraska to deliver a simple message: the oil pipeline can be stopped.
On one recent trip, she steered around puddles left by a spring thaw on a stretch of unpaved road. She was headed for a ranch TransCanada Corp.’s (TRP) proposed Keystone XL pipeline would cross, to visit a couple that is fighting the project.
Kleeb, 40, the executive director of Bold Nebraska, figures she travels the state at least twice a week to tell residents that if they stick together, they can block the pipeline. She has put 60,000 miles on the Odyssey since buying it 1 1/2 years ago.
“I thought citizens on their own had pushed back, but the government wasn’t representing them,” Kleeb, organizer and political activist, said in an interview. “Now we have more of a unified voice.”
Much of the opposition to the $5.3 billion Keystone project has centered in Nebraska, where Kleeb is working to organize families along the 274-mile (441-kilometer) route through the state. The pipeline would be able to carry about 830,000 barrels of diluted bitumen, a type of heavy crude, from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The mother of three young girls, Kleeb stands about 5 feet, 6 inches in cowboy boots and has been a formidable force against the pipeline, squaring off against oil companies and labor groups that have spent millions of dollars pushing the project in Washington.
President Barack Obama cited concerns raised by Kleeb and others in the state over the threat to the Sand Hills region, a giant wetland that sits above the Ogallala aquifer, when he blocked an original pipeline path last year.
TransCanada has since pushed its pipeline proposal further east on a path that the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality says avoids the area.
Supporters say the project will increase U.S. energy security and create thousands of construction jobs.
Barry Rubin, a spokesman for Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, which receives money from the oil industry and labor groups supportive of the project, said most residents in the state want Keystone to be built. Nebraskans favor building the pipeline by a 2-to-1 margin, according to an Omaha World-Herald poll conducted in September.
Kleeb has exaggerated the risks of the pipeline, stoking fears among Nebraskans whose property the line would cross, he said.
“Jane has provided a very loud voice to a very vocal minority,” Rubin, a former director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said in an interview. “She’s a good political organizer. She’s a fantastic paid activist.”
Shawn Howard, a spokesman for the Calgary-based TransCanada, said Kleeb was part of the “big green machine” that includes environmental groups like the Sierra Club that want to stop the pipeline because they oppose the production of fossil fuels.
Kleeb says she’s fighting for Nebraska landowners who are bearing all the risks of the spill and won’t realize many of the economic benefits.
“What TransCanada puts through that pipeline is not good for our families, and that is not fair,” Kleeb told U.S. State Department officials at a public hearing on the revised project last month in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Kleeb’s path to the leader of the anti-Keystone movement has not been without its own bumps. Teased about her weight, she said she began to develop anorexia in the 5th grade.
“I started to diet, and it consumed every ounce of me,” she said.
Her heart stopped at one point while she was staying at an in-treatment facility. That scared her, and she began to work her way back to good health. But it wasn’t until she was 23 that she was fully recovered, she says.
Kleeb credits her mom, who directed an anti-abortion group, with instilling in her a sense of activism that she leaned on in her recovery. While their politics eventually diverged, Kleeb says her community involvement helped her overcome anorexia. It helps to get your mind off the “nuts and bolts” of recovery, she said.
“If I can beat anorexia, then bring it on TransCanada,” she said.
After directing an AmeriCorps program in Philadelphia, Kleeb moved Washington to run the Young Democrats for America. That was the role would eventually lead her to Nebraska.
In 2006, a colleague sent her a picture of Scott Kleeb, a politically active Nebraska rancher, and suggested Jane ask him to speak at the Young Democrat’s convention in Arizona. He agreed.
After a short courtship that included a stay at his family’s ranch in the Nebraska’s Sand Hills, they married and moved to Hastings, a town in southern Nebraska about a 110 miles west of Lincoln, the state capital.
In 2006, Scott Kleeb unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat to represent Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers the western part of the state. Another effort to run for U.S. Senate in 2008 was also unsuccessful. He now runs an energy efficiency company in Hastings.
Jane Kleeb says one goal of hers is to revive the progressive political movement in Nebraska, where reforms such the unicameral legislature and rural electrification programs took root.
The state is now solidly Republican, as are many people in the coalition Kleeb helped to build. The state’s governor and entire Congressional delegation is Republican.
“She’s good at bringing folks together and focusing their attention on the issues before us,” said John Hansen, president of the National Farmers Union, which also opposes the pipeline.
Bold Nebraska has a budget of about $250,000 a year. About 85 percent of its donors are from the state, though supporters as far away as Vermont have contributed. Kleeb is the only full-time employee.
At the Grand Island hearing, Kleeb, one of several hundred people who attended the meeting in a “Pipeline Fighter” t-shirt, used the three minutes allotted time to appeal directly to Obama.
“We’re telling President Obama, it’s your turn,” she said. “It’s your turn to be the change you’ve talked about in your 2008 race. It’s your turn to be the change you talked about in your inaugural address.”
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