NELIGH, Neb. — Music legends Willie Nelson and Neil Young delivered Saturday on a promise to comfort opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline while also pleasing a few project supporters who ventured into a crowded Nebraska farm field.
A familiar duo in the Farm Aid series of benefit concerts, Nelson and Young teamed up to give a musical assist to pipeline fighters. They performed just one number together, incorporating a few anti-pipeline verses into the folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”
“That tar-sand oil ain’t good for drinking,” Young sang.
Even those who didn’t sing along as the chorus railed against new fossil fuel development and corporate influence said the concert offered an all-around good vibe.
Mike Nash of Omaha said it was easier for him to overlook politics that he doesn’t necessarily agree with when the politics come from two music icons in such a unique venue.
“Love the people here, love the show, everybody’s getting along,” he said as Nelson strummed the opening of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
During a pre-concert press conference, Young said the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline symbolizes the larger choice that the world faces between fossil fuels and renewable energy. A native of Canada, Young, 68, urged the United States to take decisive action on climate change.
“America has a chance to stand up and lead the world like we used to,” Young said to a throng of reporters covering the event. “So we’re not just standing here complaining about problems, but finding solutions.”
Jane Kleeb, the lead organizer of the Harvest the Hope concert, said Nelson and Young helped the show sell 8,000 tickets at $50 each. The proceeds, after roughly $100,000 in expenses are deducted, will benefit three pipeline opponents: Bold Nebraska, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Cowboy and Indian Alliance.
“These boots and moccasins are going to stop this pipeline,” said Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, an environmental advocacy group.
The day’s events brought together leaders from several of the seven bands of the Great Sioux Nation in South Dakota and the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma. The proposed path of the pipeline crosses historical tribal lands in South Dakota as well as the Ponca Trail of Tears in Nebraska, the path the Ponca people following during their forced march to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory.
Nelson, 81, suggested his participation in the event was motivated by his longstanding advocacy for farmers and his admiration for Native American people.
“We’re here for the farmers and ranchers, the cowboys and Indians,” he said. “And we’ve always been there. Thank you for coming out to help us help them.”
Sunny skies and a strong southerly breeze settled over the day as thousands made their way down a gravel road north of Neligh to the concert site in a farm field.
Art and Helen Tanderup, whose 160-acre farm lies on the path of the pipeline, hosted the event. The Tanderups are among roughly 100 Nebraska landowners who have refused to sign easement agreements with pipeline company TransCanada Corp. About 400 other Nebraska landowners have signed easements.
For six years, TransCanada has been seeking approval from the U.S. State Department to build a 36-inch-wide pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels a day of mostly heavy Canadian oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The southern part of the project is done, so now the company wants to build a 1,200-mile stretch between western Canada’s oil sands region to Steele City, Nebraska.
President Barack Obama must approve the project because it crosses international borders. His administration has put the project on hold while the Nebraska Supreme Court reviews the legality of the state law used to route the pipeline. The court is not expected to issue an opinion until after November’s elections.
Pipeline supporters say it will provide well-paying construction jobs as it is built and property tax revenues to counties along the project’s path. And they say it will reduce America’s reliance on offshore oil by tapping into Canada’s vast oil reserves.
Opponents argue that a major spill would contaminate water in the continent’s largest underground aquifer and devastate private property. They also say mining and burning the heavy Canadian oil, known as bitumen, adds significantly to the greenhouse gases affecting global climate change.
“I think jobs are fine, but jobs are temporary. The environment is permanent,” said Susie Chandler, 66, a rancher who drove to Neligh from her home near the western Nebraska village of Keystone.
Michael Whatley of the pro-pipeline Consumer Energy Alliance said last week that Nelson and Young are hurting farmers with opposition to Keystone XL. Whatley said the transportation of oil by trains — oil that could be moved instead by the pipeline — contributes to rail congestion and blocks farmers from getting crops to market.
During the roughly 30-minute session with reporters before the show, Young and Nelson did not address the criticism.
Robert Johnston, an Antelope County landowner whose property also is crossed by the pipeline, said he backs the project. He said his support is tied to his use of petroleum products on his corn, soybean and alfalfa farm and the property tax benefits that the county would receive if the project were built.
Johnston didn’t plan to attend the show, but when his combine broke down while harvesting soybeans, he decided to head down to the Tanderup farm.
“I think it’s great, really,” he said. “What the heck. It’s just another example of the economic activity TransCanada has brought to Antelope County.”
The Tanderups harvested a good portion of their corn early to provide space for the concert and parking. Crews erected a stage in the corner of a plot of oats, and a stand of towering cottonwoods provided a sweeping backdrop for the stage and a jumbo screen.
Out in the field, people sat in bag chairs and on blankets. Some concertgoers sported cowboy hats, while others wore eagle feathers. Some danced in flip-flops while people next to them scooted in knee-high cowboy boots with jeans tucked inside. The audience ranged from infants to grandparents.
Performers such as Frank Waln, a Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist from Rosebud, South Dakota, and Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of Willie Nelson, warmed up the crowd.
Willie Nelson then took the stage and ran through most of his popular titles, such as “On the Road Again” and “You Are Always on My Mind.” He played for about 45 minutes.
Young’s set, which extended beyond an hour, included the well-known “Heart of Gold” and a new version of “Who’s Gonna Stand Up,” which he wrote about the Keystone XL pipeline.
With his guitar in hand and harmonica around his neck, Young urged Nebraskans not to give up. “This is never going to end, until we get it right.”
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