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NEWS: Keystone XL raises concerns about 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, “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. …Construction of this phase is anticipated to be completed by the first quarter of 2013. …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, 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.”

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.

The Calgary Sun reported earlier this week that, “The pipeline, meant to directly link the Alberta oilsands with the refinery belt on the Gulf coast, has been in a holding pattern for a presidential permit since 2008.” Now, a letter sent by 28 Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives has urged US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speed up the regulatory process of the Keystone XL pipeline. The letter states, “We urge you to conclude this process, approve a presidential permit, and allow the Keystone XL expansion to move forward as soon as possible.” The Calgary Herald adds that, “The pipeline has been on indefinite hold since last July, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described a draft environmental study of the project as ‘inadequate’ — raising concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the potential threat to sensitive ecosystems of a spill. The State Department is now weighing whether to conduct a supplemental eco-study providing more detail on Keystone’s emergency response plans, the chemical composition of the oilsands bitumen and potential damage to groundwater from pipeline leaks or spills. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last October that she was ‘inclined’ to approve the pipeline.”

The Calgary Herald also reports that, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a personal pitch (on February 4) for President Barack Obama to support a controversial $7-billion pipeline that could double the amount of Alberta oilsands crude exported to the United States (at the time they met to announce plans for a new security perimeter). Harper confirmed he pressed Obama on Calgary-based TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline during the two leaders’ hour-long meeting at the White House.”