Magazine | May 19, 2014, Issue

Pipelines, Wind Farms, and Gods

A snapshot of our energy debate from rural Nebraska

Diller, Neb. – Driving out of the Lincoln airport, I pull onto I-80. And the first thing I see is a flatbed with a very long, strange white object on it. The object looks almost extraterrestrial. What is it? Turns out it’s a blade for a wind turbine. And this relates to my purpose here in Nebraska.

I’m heading to the southeast corner of the state, near the Kansas line. There, a wind farm has gone up, disturbing the community. At the same time, the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run through the area, is blocked. Blocked by politics. This corner of the country provides a snapshot of our national, and often weird, energy debate.

The pipeline would carry oil from Alberta, Canada, down to the Gulf Coast. It requires President Obama’s okay. He and his administration have been “studying” the issue for the entirety of his presidency. Some people speak of “KST,” for “Keystone Standard Time.” That means very slow.

For the environmentalist Left, the pipeline is a cause célèbre. They are working very hard against it. Daryl Hannah, the actress, chained herself to the White House fence. Robert Redford has lectured Nebraskans and others about the evils of the pipeline.

The state’s governor, Dave Heineman, a Republican, is a proponent. Initially, he was an opponent. Or rather, he opposed the planned route, saying it might threaten water supplies. But in January 2013, Heineman approved a new route. A leading activist in this state said, “Governor Heineman sided with a foreign corporation today and turned his back on our water and property rights.” (Keystone is owned by TransCanada.)

Nationalism aside, the major claims against the pipeline are these: It would be at risk of accident. It would scar or defile the land. It would perpetuate our dependence on oil, which is causing our planet to overheat.

There are many pipelines beneath the ground here in southeast Nebraska, near the villages of Diller and Steele City. (That second village has fewer than a hundred people in it, despite the word “city.”) As Ray Rohr, a local excavator, says, “Some people act like a pipeline is something new. We’ve had pipelines for years.” He has worked on some of them.

In the early 1950s, the Platte Pipeline went in. At the dedication ceremony, Senator Hugh Butler hailed “the most significant event to occur in this part of the country since the railroads tied the West and the East into a united country.” Other pipelines include the Trailblazer, the Northern Natural, the Rockies Express, and the Keystone — yes, the Keystone. The XL would be merely the latest of the Keystone pipelines.

Occasionally, there is a problem, say Rohr and others: a leak, an explosion. But these are very few and far between. Moreover, pipeline technology has made great strides. The lines are safer than ever. They feature automatic-shutoff valves, for example. The fuss over the Keystone XL, in light of Nebraska’s long experience with pipelines, baffles many people. Rohr thinks it has to do with the terrible BP explosion in the Gulf four years ago. People saw it on their televisions and associated it with the oil industry at large.

There is almost no visible evidence of the pipelines. Now and then, you’ll see an above-ground station. Otherwise, the pipelines are buried, “out of sight and out of mind,” as Robert Milligan, who has a farm in this area, says. You can see wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail (some 150 years after they first appeared). The pipelines, not really.

What is very much visible is the wind farm: the Steele Flats Wind Farm. The turbines are enormous, inescapable, “in your face,” as Cynthia Milligan says. They utterly alter the landscape, and, in some eyes, blight it.

The Nebraska Public Power District set a goal: By 2020, 10 percent of energy should come from renewable sources. The relevant boards in this part of Nebraska held hearings last spring. The subject was the wind farm. Arguments flew back and forth, naturally. Also naturally, there was an element of NIMBY: “Not in my backyard.” This affects families high and low. In Massachusetts, the Kennedy family objected to the Cape Wind Project — which would spoil the view from their storied compound.

Here in the Diller–Steele City area, Kevin McIntyre objected to the Steele Flats project. For one thing, he didn’t want to put up with the noise of the turbines. He was quoted by the Beatrice Daily Sun as saying, “I want to go out on my back deck and sit in peace and quiet and listen to the cows or to the birds. We all pray for rain at church. I’m going to pray for lack of wind.”

Other residents were friendlier to the turbines, including those who would have them on their property: They would receive about $7,000 per turbine, per year. The turbines are expected to be in place for 20 years.

There are 44 of them. They went up last summer and fall. They were installed by NextEra Energy Resources, a company out of Florida. The company got in under the wire: At the end of the year, Congress let the tax subsidy for wind expire. But those who began construction before December 31 get to enjoy their subsidy for the next ten years.

#page#These turbines are enormous, as I said. You almost have to see them to understand how dominating they are. Each turbine is 426 feet tall — taller than the capitol tower in Lincoln, as Cynthia Milligan points out. (Nebraska’s capitol is the second-tallest in the country, after Louisiana’s.)

Talking to Bill and Judy Holliger, I say, “The turbines are kind of interesting at first. Kind of pretty. But then you get tired of them.” Bill gives me a wry smile: “Don’t take long.” Judy says they can distract you when you’re driving. Then there’s the noise. These new turbines are quieter than older ones, which make an awful racket. But they are not silent (understandably). Judy says the sound reminds you of a jet overhead, which, however, does not pass.

At night, the turbines have red lights, blinking in sync — in the visual equivalent of unison. Ray Rohr has seen these lights from at least 25 miles away. Again, they can be kind of neat, at first. But they’re not like an art exhibition that is soon taken down. They are permanent, or nearly so.

I ask various residents, “Do you think you’ll get used to the turbines? Do you think you’ll reach a point where you’ll look past them, not notice them? Where they’ll be just part of the furniture?” They are doubtful.

Then there’s the question of birds, an important question. This corner of Nebraska is rich in birds, rife with birds — including waterfowl. Not just geese but such exotica as pelicans. The skies above are a “flyway,” a path for migrating birds. Wind turbines are no friend of birds. James Delingpole, the British writer and anti-wind crusader, refers to them as “bat-chomping, bird-slicing eco-crucifixes.” Turbines kill something like half a million birds a year in the United States.

In December, the Obama administration issued a telling ruling: Wind farms would be permitted to kill eagles with impunity for 30 years. One congressman, Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, called these permits “licenses to kill.” A senator, the Louisiana Republican David Vitter, said that the permits seemed “unpatriotic.”

Wind power is held to be almost sacred by some Americans. In 2011, the Obama administration brought suit against several oil companies in North Dakota. The reason: A handful of birds — between 25 and 30 — had died in reserve pits. But wind power can do no wrong, apparently, even where our national emblem, the bald eagle, is concerned.

Some people are shocked and disgusted at the sight of an oil derrick — which is up for 20 to 30 days and then replaced by a simple, unobtrusive pump, which moreover is painted to blend in with the landscape. Once the well is dry, the pump goes away, leaving the land just as it was before the drilling. Wind turbines, however, stay, loom, and rust. Pipelines, meanwhile, burrow underground. Everyone has a preference, aesthetic and otherwise.

Dennis Rasmussen, a member of the Nebraska Public Power District board, will take pipelines over wind farms any day. The problem, he says, is that “there’s so darn much politics” in any discussion of energy. Political passion takes the place of reasoned consideration.

In February, a Nebraska judge, Stephanie F. Stacy, struck down the Keystone route approved by Governor Heineman. More precisely, she struck down the law by which Heineman gave his approval. She said that it violated the state’s constitution. The winning lawyer in this case was David Domina, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate. The state’s attorney general, Jon Bruning, is appealing Stacy’s decision to the Nebraska supreme court. That appeal could take many months.

President Obama will take many months, too: His administration announced that it is putting off consideration of Keystone XL indefinitely. The main reason cited was the Nebraska litigation. So, KST — Keystone Standard Time — continues to prevail.

Obviously, some people think of wind power as “next.” The company that put in Steele Flats calls itself “NextEra.” One of the most zealous anti-Keystone groups calls itself “NextGen Climate Action.” Something will replace oil, in the fullness of time. But I’m not sure it will be wind. Right now, wind is responsible for just 4 percent of the nation’s electricity. It is a vanity project — a moral-vanity project. I also think it may prove a fad, not unlike the pet rock or lava lamp. In the opinion of Dennis Rasmussen, wind will not long survive the loss of a subsidy.

Of all the facts I know, one of my favorites is this: A key ingredient of a wind-turbine blade, such as the one I saw on the flatbed as I entered I-80, is petroleum. Even the “alternative” is depending on the oily stuff.

Cynthia Milligan jokes that people far into the future might come upon wind farms and wonder at them as we moderns wonder at Stonehenge. What were people in the early 21st century doing with these giant turbines? Trying to communicate with their deities? I think of a movie title, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” In our energy politics, the gods are a little crazy, or someone is.

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