When government scientists determined that there would be negligible environmental impact due to the Keystone XL pipeline, another 400 miles of new, safer pipeline in an area where 20,000 miles of older pipeline already existed were not going to ruin the ecology, President Barack Obama ordered them to study it again.
But that was not the only instance of scientization of politics - seeking to rationalize political beliefs for special interest groups by claiming they are evidence-based. As supporters and opponents of the proposed pipeline testified at public hearings in Nebraska between 2010-2013, several interest groups attempted to frame the debate in different ways.
A University of Kansas scholar who examined 528 testimonies from public hearings in Nebraska said the debate boiled down to a confrontation between stakeholders in two types of natural resources: water from the Oglala Aquifer and bitumen extracted from Alberta, Canada.
"It's not a battle between these two resources, but the cultural values people ascribe to these natural resources," said James Ordner, a doctoral candidate in sociology at University of Kansas and the study's author. "Community opposition to energy projects may occur more often as the oil and gas industry spreads into areas that it traditionally hasn't operated in."
President Barack Obama has spent more than half of his time in office deciding whether to allow TransCanada Corporation to complete the pipeline across Nebraska so that it can move diluted bitumen from the Alberta Province to refineries located on the Texas Gulf Coast. The plan has been controversial in Nebraska, particularly in the Sandhills region.
During the public comment hearings in Nebraska handled by the U.S. State Department and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, proponents of the pipeline often stressed economic benefits, job creation and national security issues to rally public support for the energy project, he said.
"At the beginning of the KXL debate, job numbers were a really a big selling point because of the nation's financial situation after 2008," Ordner said. "Job creation is an almost sacred issue for many KXL supporters, especially for more conservative or business-minded folks."
Initially, job numbers were somewhat exaggerated by many pipeline supporters, and numbers like "100,000 new jobs" were sometimes used to try and promote the project, he said. The final State Department Environmental Impact Statement suggests up to 40,000 direct and indirect jobs would be created by the project.
"Outside of economic benefits, pipeline supporter testimonies talked about the high skill level of pipeline construction workers and the state-of-the-art technology TransCanada would use to construct the pipeline," Ordner said.
Proponents stressed national security concerns and energy independence, such as reducing dependence on OPEC nations and other sources of foreign oil.
Some KXL supporter testimonies attempted to characterize opposition members in Nebraska as environmental extremists. According to Ordner, this assertion is misplaced because the pipeline opposition in Nebraska has also scared rural farmers and ranchers, it is no longer just environmental activists in big cities raising money promoting fear and doubt.
The opposition movement, under the leadership of Jane Kleeb and Bold Nebraska, has told landowners there will be contamination of the aquifer. Landowners began to worry that if the pipeline leaked, toxic chemicals could contaminate the aquifer and make well water undrinkable for humans and livestock. Thanks to successful public relations by environmental activists, there is now an unlikely alliance between ranchers, Native Americans, anti-energy activists and rural landowners. The diverse mix of people making up the opposition movement makes it difficult for proponents of the project to criticize the opposition in Nebraska, particularly rural landowners.
Ordner said it was important to study how various interests are framing the debate in Nebraska because similar debates are likely to crop up in the future as communities encounter more oil and gas exploration projects like hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking," and other energy projects.
Presented as part of the paper, "The Keystone XL Pipeline and At-Risk Communities in Nebraska," on Saturday, Aug. 22, at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).