Students Use Controversial Pipeline Issue As A Lesson On Civic Engagement

Roommates Ben Schilling and Phil Bakken wanted to ignite a spark in this year’s Student Affairs Senate.

The governing body for students at Nebraska Wesleyan University has a history of approving student fees and allocating funds for new student organizations and events.

“We wanted something to get excited about,” said Bakken, the SAS president. “It has been a while since SAS has got behind a big issue.”

They tested the pulse of the student body during the first few weeks of the academic year. They listened to student opinion; they watched the events and activities that their peers were taking strong interest in.

In mid-September Schilling and Bakken attended a campus presentation about the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline. Schilling, of McCook, had concerns about the proposed route over the Ogallala Aquifer.

“My family has been heavily involved in water rights issues and conservation,” said Schilling. “Those issues have been a central part of my family’s life.”

Bakken hadn’t formed a definitive opinion on the pipeline just yet but attended the presentation to support his friend and fellow SAS senator Chelsea Johnson. Johnson, a junior political science major from Auburn, Neb., has been deeply involved in the issue as an intern with BOLD Nebraska.

When the pipeline presentation concluded, nearly 30 students signed a petition voicing their opposition to the controversial project.

“We realized that this was an issue SAS could take a stance on,” said Schilling.

After reading plenty of background material on the topic, members of the SAS executive committee introduced legislation to the entire Student Affairs Senate. The legislation proposed opposition to the pipeline route.

“Was it our place to take a stand as a student body?” asked Johnson. “We didn’t see any reason not to give it a try.”

Senators spent three weeks debating environmental concerns, job creation, and lack of state regulations on routing of oil pipelines. Senators made amendments to the original legislation. They tabled the legislation and discussed the matter further with their constituents.

On October 11, the Student Affairs Senate gave unanimous approval to SR-3. In addition to voicing its opposition to the pipeline’s proposed route, the Student Affairs Senate recommended a delegation present their resolution to Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman.

“We didn’t want our work confined to the University,” said Bakken. “We wanted to make the point that youth in Nebraska were also concerned and we wanted the governor to know.”

The NWU student delegation soon met with the governor’s policy analyst and shared the SAS resolution.

“I was impressed with how direct he was with us,” said Jessie Preston of Arnold, who was part of the student delegation. “It showed us that there is no harm in trying.”

The student delegation also had the opportunity to thank the policy analyst for the governor’s decision to call a special legislative session to address state regulations of pipeline routes.

“We really thought a special session was a long shot when we first worked on our legislation,” said Johnson.

The U.S. State Department has since delayed its decision on the 1,700-mile pipeline and has ordered TransCanada to explore a route that won’t go through Nebraska’s Sandhills.

The student senators are pleased with the decision. And they’re just as pleased with the lesson they learned on civic engagement.

“I think a lot of us at Wesleyan shoot high,” said Schilling, who admits this experience has rejuvenated an interest in politics. “I think our generation tends to be cynical but we’re headstrong too. We don’t throw in the towel.”

And if the pipeline eventually does forge ahead through the Ogallala Aquifer, the students agree they will be disappointed but not defeated.

“It really was a good example of civic engagement,” said Bakken.

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SAS President Phil Bakken and senators Jessie Preston and Chelsea Johnson took the student opposition to the state capital.