Randy Thompson

Picture of Giraffe Randy Thompson

It's a classic confrontation: the little guy versus the big corporation. In this case, the little guy is 6-foot Nebraskan farmer and rancher Randy Thompson, and the big corporation is Canada oil giant TransCanada. And on the giant TransCanada's side: officials in the Nebraska statehouse and legislature who are choosing to advocate for the company, not for protecting the state's ranch- and farmlands.

What TransCanada wants is to run the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta down through the Plains States—including Nebraska—to refineries in Texas, to be sold to the highest world bidders. Never mind that another TransCanada pipeline has had 12 confirmed leaks in less than a year, one of which spewed 20,000 gallons of tar into the air. The pipeline will bring construction jobs to Nebraska, says the governor, and that's what's important.

What's important to Thompson is that his family conquered deep poverty—no indoor plumbing or electricity when he was growing up—to buy the 400 acres of land he now owns. When a TransCanada representative came by to ask if the company could run its pipeline through that land, Thompson gave him a noncommittal answer and then went on his computer to do some research. What he found stunned him. He told TransCanada "No." Actually, he told them "Go to hell."

That's when the threatening letters began, as well as the phone calls, and they continued for seven years: If Thompson didn't give TransCanada what it wanted—and it eventually offered to pay him serious cash for the route through his land—they would seize the land under eminent domain. It didn't matter that TransCanada is a private, Canadian corporation, not a US or Nebraska governmental agency. Thompson wrote to Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman about his concerns and in return got a form letter thanking him for his input.

Thompson was infuriated: "Our families have invested too much blood, sweat, and tears to simply sit back and let a foreign corporation take a portion of our hard-earned land through eminent domain for their private use and gain. . . . I've never seen any asterisk in the Constitution that says this property is only yours until a big corporation wants it."

Randy Thompson decided it was more important to fight TransCanada than to continue his full-time ranching and farming. He stepped away often enough to become the face and the voice of the anti-pipeline movement in Nebraska, testifying before the state legislature, before the U.S. Congress, and before the State Department. With the help of the nonprofit organization, Bold Nebraska, he began appearing on local and national media. And he is the actual face on t-shirts that feature the slogan, "I stand with Randy." TransCanada changed its proposed route to one that skirts Thompson's land, but Thompson didn't stop speaking out; a lot of other people's land was still endangered.

Finally, in 2014, a possibly temporary victory: Despite the TransCanada/State of Nebraska partnership, a district judge declared unconstitutional the law that gave the governor and state environmental regulators the authority to approve oil pipeline routes. At this writing, the Nebraska Attorney General is appealing the ruling.

Thompson is an unlikely activist. Until that visit from TransCanada, he was a quiet conservative and tended to stay out of public matters, preferring to tend to his farm and ranch. But that all changed. "I guess I'm kind of an accidental activist," he says. "I did it because it needed to be done. The people who were supposed to be looking out for us? They were looking out for them."