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NEWS: Keystone pipeline raises concerns about the Ogallala Aquifer

The Keystone pipeline, which is being built to transport tar sands crude oil from the northern Alberta tar sands to refineries and markets in the United States and beyond, is raising concerns among many about its possible impacts on the Ogallala Aquifer, the Niobrara River, and other rivers, wetlands and water sources.

As noted on the TransCanada (the company building the pipeline) website, “Originating at Hardisty, Alberta, the Keystone Pipeline will transport crude oil to U.S. Midwest markets at Wood River and Patoka, Illinois. Keystone Phase I will be in service by mid-2010. …Keystone Cushing (Phase II) is an extension of the Keystone Pipeline of approximately 480 kilometres from Steele City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma. The pipeline is scheduled for construction in 2010 and will connect to storage and distribution facilities at Cushing, a major crude oil marketing/refining and pipeline hub. …Construction (of Phase II) is anticipated to be completed by the fourth quarter of 2010 and the pipeline in service by 2011.”

Keystone XL
“The proposed Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project is an approximately 2,673-kilometre crude oil pipeline that would begin at Hardisty, Alberta and extend southeast through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. It would incorporate the 480-kilometre portion of the Keystone Pipeline (Phase II) through Nebraska, Kansas to serve markets at Cushing, Oklahoma before continuing through Oklahoma to a delivery point near existing terminals in Nederland, Texas to serve the Port Arthur, Texas marketplace.Keystone plans to first construct the 700-kilometres of new pipeline in Oklahoma and Texas. It is anticipated this third phase of Keystone would start construction in the first quarter of 2011 and be complete by the fourth quarter of 2011. Construction of the fourth phase of Keystone would follow with approximately 526-kilometres of new pipeline through Canada. The pipeline would then extend south approximately 1,371 kilometres through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska. Construction of this phase is anticipated to be completed by the first quarter of 2013.”

“The first leg of the Keystone Pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Wood River/ Patoka, Illinois has throughput capacity of 435,000 barrels per day. Phase II of the project to Cushing will be completed in late 2010 and increase capacity to 591,000 barrels per day. The Gulf Coast Expansion will add an additional 500,000 barrels per day in late 2012. When completed, the expansion will increase the commercial design of the Keystone Pipeline system from 590,000 barrels per day to approximately 1.1 million barrels per day. With the additional contracts, the Keystone Pipeline has now secured long-term commitments for 910,000 barrels per day for an average term of approximately 18 years.”

The Ogallala Aquifer is a vast yet shallow underground water table aquifer. One of the world’s largest aquifers, it covers an area in portions of the eight states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. The aquifer provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer’s boundary.

Maude Barlow writes in Blue Covenant that the aquifer is already under stress because, “It’s massive water reserves – larger than Lake Huron – are now used to grow water intensive crops such as cotton and alfalfa in the desert.”

The Journal Star, a newspaper in Nebraska, recently reported that, “Much of the concern directed at the 254-mile portion of the route of the (Keystone XL) underground petroleum line through Nebraska involved the Ogallala Aquifer.” A landowner in the area who attended a consultation on the pipeline commented, “I can’t see how they can even consider this pipeline and take the chance of it ruining the groundwater in Nebraska.”

In another article the Journal Star reports, “(Local) banker Dan Kramer has been thumbing through (a draft environmental impact statement) to try to understand how an underground petroleum pipeline can be built through the Nebraska Sandhills without posing a serious threat to one of the state’s most treasured resources (the massive Ogallala Aquifer). …Kramer feels equally uncertain about the implications for a water table that typically bubbles up through the soil surface during springtime around (the community of) Atkinson.”

The Beatrice Daily Sun, another newspaper in Nebraska, reports that, “One of Duane Hovorka’s (the executive director of the Nebraska wildlife federation) biggest concerns is the pipeline running through the Nebraska Sandhills. He said the soil in the Sandhills has recently stabilized but is still fragile. …Hovorka also expressed concerns with the wetlands and streams in the area. He cited different species of wildlife who make habitat in those areas and said even a small leak in a pipeline could cause major problems. Bruce and Marjorie Kennedy from rural Malcolm, expressed the same concerns as Hovorka. …Bruce also inquired about how the pipeline will affect the Ogallala Aquifer and the Niobrara River. An official said the pipeline does indeed cross the Niobrara River, but the area where it crosses has been moved away from the national scenic portion of the river.”

The Grand Island Independent, yet another local newspaper in Nebraska,quotes Jenny Pelej, field coordinator with National Wildlife Federation, who says, “When also taking into consideration the environmental destruction that is required to produce tar sands oil to begin with — an energy-intensive process that emits three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, requires two barrels of water for every barrel of oil, and the clearing of boreal forest for wastelands of tailing ponds, it becomes clear that tar sands is the wrong energy choice for Americans.”

A Journal Star editorial critical of the pipeline states that, “A 470-page report from pipeline company officials on environmental impacts  attempts to reassure. “Keystone will employ multiple safeguards to prevent a pipeline release. The chance of a spill occurring is very low and if a spill occurred, the volume is likely to be relatively small’, the statement says.”

But the Grand Island Independent has reported that Hovorka noted that a leak in Minnesota from an Enbridge pipeline this past April resulted in a leak of tar sands crude oil into a wetland area there. “The leak, Hovorka said, was first discovered and reported by local firefighters. Enbridge Energy reportedly did not know of the leak until the fire crews called and notified them. Though oil transportation companies like Enbridge claim to have safety regulations and mechanisms in place to immediately detect problems, Hovorka said leaks like this can occur and not be noticed for days.” The argument is made that the situation could be the same with the TransCanada pipeline.

Concerns are also being raised about the Keystone pipeline facilitating tar sands exports to Europe. A blog from the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council notes that, “Greenpeace UK released a report (on May 10) exposing Europe’s role in Canada’s dirty tar sands oil trade. The report shows that if the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is built to the U.S. Gulf – it will not even necessarily mean security of oil supply for the United States. Gulf Coast refineries ship fuel to Europe and already some tar sands from Gulf Coast refineries is reaching European markets. The report explains how a lack of diesel production capacity in Europe means that the continent is now importing more diesel than ever before from the U.S. Gulf Coast. At least seven refineries operating in the U.S. Gulf Coast region source oil from the Canadian tar sands and the report reveals how at least three of these also export diesel to Europe. With the new pipeline built many more refineries could be engaging in the trade…”

On September 21, 2007, the National Energy Board of Canada approved the construction of the Canadian section of the pipeline. On March 17, 2008, the United States Department of State issued a Presidential Permit authorizing the construction, maintenance and operation of facilities at the United States and Canada border.

NewsOK, a newspaper in Oklahoma, reports that, “The U.S. State Department, which must (still) sign off on the project because it crosses the Canadian border. …The comment period on the proposal will be open until June 16. The State Department also is accepting comments via mail, fax or its website.”

A copy of the US State Department environmental impact statement can be found online and comments can be made online at www.keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov. It is reported by various sources that US President Barack Obama has the authority to say no to the Keystone XL pipeline and could potentially still stop it if there is enough public opposition.