Nebraska: The latest proxy battleground for the war on affordable energy

I had the privilege of serving as mayor in the small, Shenandoah Valley town where my wife and I raised our children. So, I am keenly aware of concerns about powerful out-of-state or out-of-area interests trying to take advantage of a rural population.

The Nebraskan battles over the KXL Pipeline and the Terex injection well may be cases of the private-jet set using those in a “flyover” state, but who is using whom, and how they are doing it, may not be so obvious.

Confusion and misrepresentation are symptomatic of the energy debate. Opinion polls regularly show that climate falls near the bottom of lists of issues concerning Americans, while water quality ranks near the top of environmental concerns. So, swapping “water quality” for “climate” in energy debates can be a winning strategy for those that want to hobble oil and gas production. It’s a strategy that appears to be working in Nebraska, a state that has become a proxy battleground for the war on affordable energy.

Recently this proxy battle has moved to an injection well in Sioux County. In a viral video a Nebraska farmer, protesting the permit for the well, asks oil and gas commissioners if they would drink some purported fracking fluid that he claims to have mixed up himself that morning. That the beverage offered looks more like manure tea than fracking fluid is irrelevant since the disposal well in question will be taking "produced brine" from oil wells and not "fracking fluid."

What’s not irrelevant is the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission’s perfect record with injection wells. There have been no leaks from any of the injection wells since they took regulatory control 30 years ago.

What may or may not be relevant is out-of-state funding for activists opposing the well and the KXL pipeline.

For example, a story in The New York Times about Bold Nebraska (an influential group opposing that KXL pipeline and the Sioux County well) describes how the founder “was in the middle of a fund-raising call with progressive donors, including the California billionaire Tom Steyer, who were interested in rural organizing and fighting climate change.” Organizing to fight climate change does not mean Bold Nebraska and its founder are not also interested in water quality. Nor does the fact that Tom Steyer’s billions came from hedge funds that used to invest in fossil-fuel corporations mean he isn’t sincere about restricting carbon emissions now.

But the fact that the debate over water quality so often moves to talk about global warming, as it did in my debate on The Ed Show with the founder of Bold Nebraska, might be reason for Nebraskans to look into the arguments against KXL and the Sioux County well with a little skepticism.

The fracking revolution has so flipped the script on resource availability that low prices and surpluses are now the big concerns for oil and gas markets. The low natural gas prices are bringing manufacturers back to the U.S. along with their investment and jobs.

The surge in oil production has undercut the political leverage of Russia and OPEC while effectively adding hundreds of billions of dollars per year to consumer pocketbooks. Because the poor spend a larger fraction of their incomes on energy, these cuts are especially helpful to them.

Without a doubt, Nebraskans should care about water quality and land use. And I fully understand if they discount the opinions of an economist who now works in Washington, D.C. But they ought to give at least as fair hearing to a project that will sequester brine 5,000 feet below the aquifer using an existing well regulated by a Nebraskan commission with a decades-long perfect no-leak record as they give to groups funded by out-of-state billionaires whose over-arching concern is cutting conventional energy production.

 - David W. Kreutzer is a research fellow in energy economics and climate change in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis.

About the Author

David W. Kreutzer, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow, Energy Economics and Climate Change
Center for Data Analysis

Originally appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star