Does this sound familiar?
An energy industry is controversial because of its environmental impact. So a company tries to buy public goodwill by donating money to the state university's most popular athletic program.
I'm not talking about the Wildcat Coal Lodge, the new on-campus luxury dormitory for the University of Kentucky's basketball team. The lodge's name — plus a shrine to the coal industry that will be in its front lobby — were requirements of an $8 million donation from coal industry executives.
The university's 2009 decision to accept the donation with those strings attached created controversy. That is because surface coal mining has caused extensive damage to Appalachian Kentucky's land, air and water.
I'm also not talking about the $85,000 the industry group Friends of Coal is spending to sponsor three athletic events, including the UK-University of Louisville football game and Big Blue Madness.
No, the scenario I am referring to played out recently in Nebraska. That is where TransCanada is trying to build a pipeline across that state and several others to carry oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The pipeline is controversial in Nebraska because the company insists on building it through the porous soil of the state's Sandhills region and the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to large areas of Nebraska and parts of seven other Western states. A pipeline leak in those areas could create an environmental disaster.
TransCanada has refused to change the pipeline route. On Monday, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman called a special legislative session for Nov. 1 to address the issue.
University of Nebraska football is a religious experience in that state, similar to UK basketball in Kentucky. But the Lincoln Journal-Star reported that cheering turned to boos when a highlights video of the Cornhuskers' 1978 conference championship team began showing on Memorial Stadium's huge HuskerVision screen during the Sept. 10 game against Fresno State.
The video was titled "Husker Pipeline" and seemed to be as much an advertisement for TransCanada as a tribute to the team. Four days later, after fans complained, the university ended TransCanada's football sponsorship.
"I want to make it clear that the athletic department has no position, either pro or con, regarding the proposed TransCanada Pipeline," Athletic Director Tom Osborne, a former Republican congressman and Nebraska head football coach, said in a statement.
The university explained that IMG College — the same marketing firm that works with UK Athletics — had signed the deal before the pipeline controversy erupted.
"Our athletic events are intended to entertain and unify our fan base by providing an experience that is not divisive," Osborne said in his statement.
It is unclear what the TransCanada football sponsorship was worth to the university. Pipeline opponents estimate the company has spent several hundred thousand dollars on pro-pipeline advertising in Nebraska.
The Nebraska and Kentucky situations make for interesting comparisons.
In both states, the essential debate is about whether creating short-term jobs is worth the potential for long-term environmental damage. But the situations get more complicated from there.
TransCanada has had a presence in Nebraska for only about three decades. King Coal has ruled Kentucky politics for more than a century. Few Kentucky elected officials are brave enough to buck the cash-rich coal industry.
In Nebraska, the pipeline would be an environmental threat only if it leaks. (Building it would have some environmental impact, but, in the long run, that impact would be less than trucking millions of barrels of oil cross-country.)
In Kentucky, though, coal's environmental damage has been real and apparent for decades, especially as surface mines have gotten bigger and more destructive. The beautifully reclaimed meadows and real estate developments the coal industry likes to brag about represent only a tiny fraction of mined land. Mine-related air pollution and water pollution have been significant.
You could argue that it was easy for the University of Nebraska to take a principled stand. The thousands of dollars it stood to gain from the TransCanada sponsorship paled in comparison to the millions the coal industry gave UK for its tribute lodge.
But that brings us to a question: Is the issue one of principle, or merely price?