Derek Moscato is an associate professor of journalism at Western Washington University. The following is an excerpt from his book Dirt Persuasion (Nebraska, 2022).
Chapter One: A Pipeline Runs Through It
Nearly three hours west of Omaha, in the heart of Nebraska’s Antelope County, lies the farmland of Art and Helen Tanderup. The rural property’s bountiful corn fields, sitting atop the Great Plains water source of the Ogallala Aquifer, are the very picture of idyllic Nebraska prairie. Yet this land has also been the scene of conflict, past and present. The Ponca Trail of Tears, memorializing the state’s Native Americans who were forced to walk to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1877, passes through here. Such history gives the land a sacred dimension. More than a century later, oil and gas executives earmarked these same grounds for a different kind of route for one of North America’s largest petroleum pipelines. In response, activists from an organization called Bold Nebraska descended upon these fields to challenge the encroaching infrastructure of petroleum-bearing steel tubes. With an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, Indigenous groups, ranchers, and farmers—a “Cowboy and Indian Alliance”—they unveiled a symbol fitting for the location: a massive crop art display, the size of eighty football fields, and best viewed from the air. The image, dug by the Tanderups’ tractor into the farm’s sandy soils, depicted facial silhouettes of a cowboy and an Indian warrior united atop giant letters spelling out the rallying cry of “Heartland.” Beside it was a call to action to stop the Keystone xl Pipeline: #Nokxl
Multi-billion-dollar oil and gas projects—including pipeline infrastructure projects such as Keystone XL—continue to be proposed and built around the world, contributing to a global oil and gas market worth roughly $3 to $4 trillion annually (ibis World 2020). In North America alone, this private and public investment has transformed the North American oil economy, leaving the United States and Canada as two of the world’s top five oil-producing nations. In strictly economic terms, the stakes are high for industry and government. But the stakes are significant also for environmental activists and their allies, who have resisted projects such as Keystone XL on account of their ecological and societal impacts. As a result of their opposition, the environmental debate over Keystone XL became one of the most contentious environmental topics in U.S. memory (Wolfgang 2015). In the early 2020s, that polarization between two paradigms showed no signs of going away.
Environmental movements have proven they can effectively deploy and amplify strategic communication within contemporary environmental disputes to build support for their mission and cause. What is less understood, however, is how and why their messages succeed or fail. Why do some green messages resonate with policymakers and mass audiences when others are rejected? Bold Nebraska’s environmental campaign against TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline provides an important view into the evolving role of environmentalism in a United States that is polarized like never before. Contemporary configurations of green activism such as pipeline opposition inform climate politics and energy policy, but they also offer key lessons about media advocacy and public interest communication. Nebraska’s eco-activists in particular have gone against conventional environmental wisdom by embracing a gritty and populist approach that remains embedded within regional culture and hyperlocal ecology. Their story offers a compelling but sometimes controversial way forward for environmentalism at a time when the battle for hearts and minds in ecological protection and climate policy is paramount.