Unmoving, at least for this moment, a greater prairie chicken stands at a mating gathering known as a "lek," at Calamus Outfitters, near Burwell, Nebraska, on the eastern edge of the unique 19,600-square-mile (51,000-square-kilometer) ecosystem called the Sandhills. This native grassland and windswept sand, which covers one-quarter of Nebraska, forced a rethinking of the North American energy future.
Until last fall, it seemed as if the U.S. government was on track to approve the $7 billion construction of a 1,700-mile (2,740-kilometer) pipeline to increase imports dramatically from the oil sands region of Canada and deliver the crude to the refining centers of Texas. But mounting political pressure over the environmental risks of the pipeline route through Nebraska's Sandhills put the brakes on the project in early November, and the Obama administration formally rejected the proposal Wednesday.
(Related: "Obama Administration Rejects Keystone XL Pipeline")
The White House had favored delaying a decision on TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline project until 2013, after the presidential election, to allow time for more study of the environmental issues in Nebraska. But Congress forced an accelerated up-or-down decision in its year-end federal budget legislation, spurred by advocates who argued the nation needs both the 830,000 barrels per day in additional crude oil and the construction jobs that the pipeline would deliver.
While the wrangling was under way in Washington on November 14, TransCanada announced it would work with Nebraska officials to find a pipeline route that would avoid the Sandhills.
(Related: "Is Canadian Oil Bound for China Via Texas Pipeline?")
That effort will continue, and whether the Keystone XL pipeline gets built depends on the ability of TransCanada and Nebraska to work out a revised pipeline path.
(Related Pictures: "Satellite Views of Canada's Tar Sands Over Time")
But the halt in the project's progress has put a renewed focus on the wide-ranging consequences of oil dependence, all due to a prairie and the life it sustains in the middle of the American continent.