The mailman delivered the package to Jim's door in mid-December.
Jim tore it open, and inside he found something that many Nebraskans — and in fact some of Jim's neighbors — might view as the best early Christmas present ever.
It was a contract from TransCanada Inc., the Canadian pipeline giant. The contract is long and complicated, but it boils down to this: Allow us to bury a pipeline across a piece of your cornfield outside Fullerton. In exchange, Jim, we will give you a payment and a signing bonus that equal roughly $77,000.
Seventy-seven thousand smackers, give or take, Jim says. That's nearly double the annual income of an average Nance County family.
That's a whole lot of money in Fullerton, enough for Jim to buy a new house — the median home in Nance County is worth $63,000 — and still have some left over for the down payment on a new truck. Just sign on the dotted line, mail it back in and all that money is yours.
Which is why what Jim did next is so interesting. He kept his pen in his shirt pocket. He put the contract back in its envelope. He stuck the envelope in his desk, where it sits today.
Jim Tarnick did nothing.
“I don't want their money,” he said.
We're into our fifth year debating the Keystone XL pipeline. Just that one word, “Keystone,” has become a sort of political shorthand. Say it with strength, with enthusiasm, and you think the pipeline will bring an influx of jobs, an infusion of money and oil that comes from North America instead of the Middle East.
Say it with disdain or fury, and you think the pipeline will contaminate our groundwater, our land and our air while bringing far fewer good jobs and far less money and far less North American oil than is worth the environmental danger.
For the vast majority of us on either side of this divide, the pipeline itself sometimes seems like an abstraction, another buzzword for a politician to support or oppose, another issue to get fired up about as we watch the 24-hour news cycle spin furiously by.
It's easy to forget that it's something else entirely for Jim Tarnick and his neighbors. For them, “Keystone” is an actual thing, a real, 36-inch-round pipe that will be buried 4 feet underground and pump as much as 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day through their pastures, cornfields and backyards. It is an agreement by which they will give TransCanada the rights to a 110-foot-wide lane of land, and get cold, hard cash in return.
TransCanada has delivered thousands of such contracts to landowners in the six-state path of the proposed pipeline. In five of those states, nearly every single landowner has agreed to a deal.
But in one state — this state — about 115 landowners have looked at the contract and refused to sign. They continue to decline the deal even after TransCanada significantly sweetened the pot in December.
Jim Tarnick is one of those final holdouts.
“I'm telling you, to me, it's not about the money,” he says again.
Two years ago, the only Keystone that Jim knew came in a 12-ounce, silver-and-blue can. He farms 1,000 acres of ground near the Loup River in east-central Nebraska, much of it passed to him when his father, Ray Tarnick, died young of cancer. He lives a two-hour drive from the western outskirts of Omaha. He's a registered Democrat, a bit of an oddity in Nance County, where 69 percent voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election. Truth be told, he didn't think much about politics.
Then a man came to his house, offering him $600 to do a survey of his land. Jim said no. The man came back. He offered $1,000. Jim said no again.
And then he got a package in the mail. TransCanada was offering him $35,000 to let the company pass its pipeline through his land.
Jim says he was neutral on this offer at first. The money was intriguing, though he did feel a bit concerned about the “wild talk” he heard at the coffee shop.
But after he really looked at the contract, and had lawyers look at it, he grew more worried.
The permanence of the deal bothered him. It was written so that TransCanada retained pipeline rights to this land even after the Keystone XL pipeline dried up.
What if a tornado tore apart the pipeline, or lightning struck it? Some lawyers have said the “act of God” language in the contract would leave the landowner, and not TransCanada, with the liability in those situations.
Even if nature steered clear of the pipeline, Jim worried that the upfront money seemed more than it actually was. What happened, for instance, when you factored in the potential dip in yield for the corn or soybeans planted directly above the proposed pipeline?
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And finally, what about the nightmare scenario of a spill? In that case, it isn't about the money, Jim thinks. It's about the land, the acres of ground that have been in the Tarnick family for seven decades, and Jim hopes will be in the family for seven decades more. His great-grandfather homesteaded near here. His mother, Doris Tarnick, still lives on the farm.
“What are we going to do, pack up and find another job?” he says.
TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata says the offer that Jim Tarnick received was one of about 30 letters TransCanada sent to Nebraska landowners it hasn't yet heard from.
In the unlikely event of an accident — the tornado or flood that worries Tarnick — TransCanada and not the landowner is legally responsible for the cleanup and for “ensuring that the landowner is held whole,” Sheremata told me in an email. TransCanada agrees that the pipeline construction would most likely cause a dip in the yield that Tarnick gets out of the affected field, but Sheremata said that the dip would be slight and that the pipeline company would pay the landowner for any lost crop.
He characterized the offer sent to Tarnick as a normal step in the negotiation process, and he pointed out that about three-quarters of the Nebraska landowners have already agreed to a deal.
“We are simply trying to determine if they are interested in negotiating with us at that time,” he says.
Jim has friends and neighbors who have signed the deal, and he says even though he disagrees with them, he understands their point of view. They think the pipeline is safer than Jim does. And it's real money, after all.
And yet Jim turned down the initial offer. He joined a group called NEAT, an alliance of landowners who have agreed not to sign a deal until the federal government decides whether to allow the pipeline. He spoke at public hearings and participated in anti-Keystone protests.
And then in December he turned down the second, sweeter offer, even when TransCanada signaled an openness to negotiate on any potential decreased yield, a negotiation that could turn $77,000 into something closer to $100,000.
The ultimate decision lies with the president — the president that Jim Tarnick voted for — and sometimes when he is out doing chores, he finds himself thinking about how tough a decision Barack Obama has to make.
Of course, Jim Tarnick himself has made what seems like a tough decision. If the pipeline is approved, TransCanada may pay a lot of money to the last holdouts. Or it might pay them a little. Or the company may just go ahead and seize the land by eminent domain, and then the holdouts might get even less.
I called Jim Tarnick because I was interested in this tough decision, in the harsh reality of having to put your money where your mouth is.
After all, it's easy to say you are dead set against the pipeline. But what if someone sent you a letter in the mail with $77,000 check inside it? Wouldn't it be tough not to swallow hard and cash it?
Similarly, I bet Nebraskans who support the pipeline would think long and hard if they were offered a $77,000 check in return for that pipeline never being built.
And so I wanted to plow this gray area with Jim, talk about how difficult it is to hold out against the allure of the almighty dollar. I asked about it again and again. And again and again, Jim politely told me I was missing the point.
“Listen, Matthew, I hate to be difficult,” he said to me. “But I'm telling you, it ain't about the money. I don't want to sign a lease to these guys, ever. Unless they force it on me, I won't. It's as simple as that.”