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NEWS: The Harper government vs. the Ogallala aquifer

Canadian embassy official in DC receives letter demanding a stop to lobbying for KXL

The Keystone XL pipeline project that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called a “no-brainer” for the United States to approve is in fact requiring intensive lobbying by the Canadian government in the state of Nebraska.

The Globe and Mail reports, “(Last week), Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, travelled to Lincoln, Neb., to personally meet with Governor Dave Heineman. The Canadian Consul-General in Minneapolis, who covers Nebraska, has visited the state a half dozen times in the past year. TransCanada chief executive officer Russ Girling has personally met, on multiple occasions, Gov. Heineman and the state’s U.S. senators. TransCanada has plastered the state with advertising, including a sponsorship of its revered Huskers college football team.” And last February, Harper made a personal pitch during a visit to the White House for US President Barack Obama to support the pipeline.

The article highlights, “…The Ogallala has inspired a fierce battle… To critics, Keystone XL is not just a risk to Nebraska’s water treasure. It represents the rapid growth in Alberta’s oil sands and the harmful greenhouse gas emissions the industry is creating.”

“(Opponents in Nebraska have) talked about water, and the 100 kilometres of the Keystone XL pipeline that ran across the Sandhills, which the original Keystone line doesn’t touch. The Sandhills cover roughly a quarter of Nebraska. They are a region of rolling dunes covered in a thin layer of grasses that are used to graze cattle. Many Nebraskans trace their roots to the area, which was settled by pioneers. The Sandhills also play a critical role for the Ogallala: They are a recharge point for the aquifer, filtering rain through to the ground below. In some areas the sand is so thin that the aquifer’s waters surge above surface, in low-lying pools that remain wet in even the driest conditions. …’If Colorado has the Rocky Mountains and Florida has the ocean, we have the Sandhills,’ (Republican) Sen. (Mike) Johanns said in an interview.”

“There’s a way to build Keystone XL with far less opposition. Move the pipe’s route. Many support the idea of shifting it roughly 100 kilometres to the east, where it can swing down the side of the state alongside the already-built Keystone pipe. Such is the request of Nebraska Gov. Heineman, Sen. Johanns…and numerous others. It is a prospect that TransCanada refuses, at least officially, to consider. …(The US State Department) found (that an alternative route) could be costly enough to kill the pipeline. It would also trigger new environmental review, after an already arduous three years of scrutiny. And it may not help the environment: That route would disturb more land, cross more rivers and pass over as much sensitive aquifer.”

Though not mentioned in this article, the Globe and Mail reported in late-August, “The State Department said TransCanada needs to conduct more study – and possibly add more spill protection – around the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska.” Postmedia News also reported then that, “The state department said TransCanada should commission an independent study of risks to water supplies, focusing on valves and external leak detection systems. The existing Keystone pipeline, launched 14 months ago, has reported 14 leaks, all associated with valves at pumping stations.”

“The international debate about Keystone XL could, if they are successful, be decided in a Nebraska courtroom or legislative chamber. Ken Haar, a state senator, has called for a special legislative session this fall. He wants to introduce a bill that would give the state power over oil pipelines, including their route. To succeed, he must gain the support of 25 other senators – and that remains far from certain. …And if that fails, activists have another plan: a ballot initiative. They hope to force a vote, in hopes of compelling the state to enact such legislation. …Stopping or slowing the pipeline will not be easy. Indeed, even Keystone XL opponents expect the State Department to gives its blessing – and the special legislative session has been opposed by Nebraska’s Governor, making that an uncertain path.”

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow says, “Opposition to Keystone is growing in the United States with the greatest concern being for the safety of the Ogallala, a closed and overworked aquifer. One bad spill and the aquifer could be severely damaged putting the food supply and livelihoods of million of Americans in jeopardy. Tar sands mining has destroyed much of Alberta’s water table and will put the fragile Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest known aquifer, in peril. We join with the millions of Americans who oppose the expansion of this deadly industry.”

On August 31, Barlow joined with representatives of the Indigenous Environmental Network and Greenpeace Canada to deliver a letter addressed to Canadian ambassador Gary Doer demanding an end to his lobbying in favour of the pipeline. That letter stated, “Communities living along the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline have raised strong concerns about threats to their air, water and land. The pipeline will cross the Ogallala aquifer, one of the most important reserves of freshwater in the world. Given TransCanada’s track record of pipeline failures, Canada must take responsibility for preventing further ecological damage. We respectfully ask the Canadian government to cease lobbying for the Keystone XL Pipeline and instead turn efforts to addressing the serious social and environmental impacts of the tar sands.”

Barlow is also the chairperson of the US-based group Food & Water Watch. To read a March 2011 statement of concern about the pipeline and the Ogallala aquifer by Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter, please go to http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/pressreleases/approval-of-keystone-xl-pipeline-is-risk-depleted-aquifer-can%E2%80%99t-afford/.

As noted at the top of this blog, Doer has disregarded the concerns we have expressed about the Ogallala aquifer and continued his lobbying in favour of the pipeline.

A decision on the pipeline is expected sometime in December.