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Keystone XL, Clean Water and Democracy

Bravo for Nebraskans.

In today’s economy, job creation trumps just about everything.  But for Nebraskans, at least one thing ranks higher – and that’s protecting their precious water sources.  They know, as we all should, that ample clean water is crucial for economic vitality now and for generations to come.

Nebraska’s citizens and representatives rose up — along with many others across the country — and spoke out against the proposed route for Keystone XL, the $7 billion pipeline that would deliver half a million barrels of dirty crude laden with dangerous carcinogens from the Canadian tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and along the Gulf Coast.

(Related: Measure Your Own Water Footprint)

In a significant victory for the Cornhuskers’ state, Canadian pipeline developer TransCanada announced earlier this week that it would move the pipeline route away from the ecologically sensitive Sandhills.  That announcement came on the heels of the Obama Administration’s decision to delay final word on the pipeline in order to explore alternative routes, a delay spurred in no small part by pressure from Nebraskan officials.  The U.S. State Department expects the review to take at least a year.

As originally proposed, the 1,700-mile pipeline would have crossed Nebraska’s unique and precious Sandhills, a rare native-prairie ecosystem of wetlands, lakes and grass-covered hills that spans about one-fourth of the state.

The Sandhills are also a crucial recharge zone for the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water reserve that supplies drinking water to several million people in the Great Plains as well as 30 percent of all the groundwater used for irrigation nationwide.

The region’s sandy soils allow rainfall to seep rapidly in and replenish the groundwater supply below.  Those same sandy soils, however, could allow tar sands crude from a leaky pipeline to seep into the precious Ogallala.

So the decision to avoid the Sandhills in siting Keystone XL is good news, for sure.

But a declaration of victory for safe, clean water is highly premature.

Any new route for Keystone XL would inevitably cross hundreds of rivers, large and small, between the tar sands in Alberta and the U.S. Gulf Coast.  Among them would be the Missouri, the nation’s longest river, and almost certainly Nebraska’s Platte, which early settlers called the river that was a mile wide and an inch deep. The Platte is world-renowned as the most crucial stopover for more than half a million sandhill cranes on their annual great migration.

(See my blog on the sandhill cranes.)

I was thinking about Keystone XL and Nebraskan waters two weeks ago as I flew into Omaha, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Platte. I was to deliver the E. N. Thompson Forum lecture at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL), and I knew the pipeline, the Sandhills, the Ogallala and the state’s prized rivers would be on everyone’s mind.  The day of my lecture, November 1, the Nebraska legislature went into special session to consider a bill giving the state authority to review any major oil pipeline applications.

When I got home, I dug in a bit more.  One of the pieces of research that struck me most was an analysis of “worst-case” spills from Keystone XL by John S. Stansbury, a professor of water engineering at UNL.  It pertained to the original route, but the findings were chilling and should give pause for any tar sands pipeline route that crosses rivers and groundwater that provide drinking water to cities and towns, irrigation water to farms, and life-support for fish, birds and other aquatic creatures.

Stansbury found, for instance, that a major spill from the proposed Keystone XL where the pipeline crossed the Platte could discharge more than 5.9 million gallons of heavy, toxic, tar sands crude into the river.  The resulting plume of contamination would contain benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer, at levels up to ten times the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum limit for safe drinking water.

Photo: DC Keystone pipeline rally
Protestors demonstrate against the pipeline in Washington. Brian Clark Howard

 

While the benzene concentration would decrease as the plume spread out, Stansbury found that it would have to travel hundreds of miles downstream from the spill location before the water became safe to drink.  From the Platte, the plume could flow into the Missouri. Altogether, such a spill could threaten the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people as far south as Kansas City, Missouri.

The raw tar sands oil, called bitumen, would itself cause major problems if spilled into a river because it is denser than water and would sink down to the riverbed.  Bottom-dwelling fish, insects, mussels and plants would get smothered near the spill site.

TransCanada, the pipeline operator, appears to have low-balled the likelihood of spills.  It estimated that Keystone XL (the original route) would have 11 significant spills over fifty years, whereas Stansbury’s work suggests that 91 such spills during that time is more realistic. Significant here means at least 2,100 gallons, or 50 barrels, of crude.

For the Keystone I pipeline, which began production in June 2010, TransCanada had predicted one spill every seven years, but more than a dozen spills occurred during its first year.  To be sure, most were very small, less than 15 gallons. But on May 7, 2011, a valve failure at Brampton, North Dakota caused a spill of 21,000 gallons (500 barrels) of tar sands crude, and twenty-two days later another spill of 2,100 gallons (50 barrels) occurred in Bendena, Kansas.

And then of course there’s the 843,000 gallons of crude spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River when a pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy burst in July 2010.  Sixteen months later, the Kalamazoo clean-up continues – and will go on into 2012.

So the decision to skirt the Sandhills and critical portions of the precious Ogallala, while a significant start to protecting the waters and grasslands of the Great Plains, is not insurance against serious water contamination or harm to river ecosystems from Keystone XL.

When added together, the risks of U.S. river and groundwater contamination, the ongoing toxic pollution of Canada’s Athabasca River from tar sands operations, and the prospect of a near-doubling of greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s tar sands production by 2020, the upsides of the extra oil from Keystone XL pale in comparison to the downsides.

As we’ve learned, oil and water don’t mix.  Keystone XL is another reason – and a crucial one – to get serious about kicking our oil addiction.

Comments

  1. Krystal
    Toronto
    July 29, 2012, 10:28 pm

    No one wants this pipeline, not canadians and many american’s it seems, but I have to say to Kim from Ohio, there is a different type of energy we can use. It’s called Geothermal energy. It’s clean and it can give the whole world free energy for a minimum of 15000 years. But the problem is after building the machinery that’s needed it wouldn’t cost a penny. That’s the problem though. Big corporations don’t want us to get energy for free, then these things would be obsolete. Also there is tide energy, wind, and solar. There is one other that I can’t think of right now.

  2. [...] Keystone XL pipeline (which would bring oil from the tar sands in Canada to the Gulf Coast) has faced opposition from many Nebraskans and their elected leaders due to concerns about potential environmental [...]

  3. BETH M.
    middle of Texas
    March 17, 2012, 9:54 pm

    I CAN TRULY SAY I FEEL, FOR YOU ALL. I AM SURROUNDED BY LIGNITE COAL MINES AND FRIENDS ARE DYING LIKE FLYS HERE, FROM CANCER. OF COURSE THE GOV. DID A STUDY BUT THEY WERE JUST A LITTLE TOO LATE? THEY DID STOP THE LIGNITE AT BIG BROWN OR TXU OR EVERY NEW NAME THEY COME UP WITH. THEY BUILT RAILS TO SHIP GOOD COAL FROM NEW MEXICO AND OTHER COAL CITIES. NOW MY HUSBAND HELPED BUILD THAT POWER PLANT. THEN HE WORKED THERE FOR 17 YEARS, SO FAR SO GOOD, BUT HE’S NOT ONE FOR GOING TO DR.’S OR HAVING TESTS DONE. I FEEL AWFUL EVERY DAY AND I DON’T WANT TO KNOW EITHER. SO TRY TO KEEP THE GOV. FROM TAKING OVER, YOU WILL HAVE DEATH AND UNKNOWN ILLNESSE’S IF THAT STUFF GETS IN YOUR WATER SUPPLY.

  4. Kim Simmons
    Ohio
    February 29, 2012, 6:54 pm

    Sounds good, but and here it comes, just what do you expect to replace the oil with? The USA no longer mines the minerals needed for solar panels, and China is restricting what they mine. Wind power is extremely unpredictable, I have checked and where I live I was told by experts, no.
    Everyone does not actually trust nuclear power, but then who would when the building got sot generally the lowest bidder.
    WHile I totally understand and support intelligent environmentalist who actually use science and not creative science, there is only one other alternative to oil or nuclear and that is natural gas, but most enviromentalists are also against getting that out.
    Do we go back to the horse sand buggy, and I am not being flippant. The distances involved in moving products and services here in the USA are far greater then in Europe and just about everywhere else but CHina and Russia, both of whom would toss environmentalists into jail for 30 years for trying to do what they can do here, protest and stop projects.
    It is easy to say no, and say we need to be environmetally sensitive, it is another to be a realist.

  5. [...] Read full article [...]

  6. Eric Olson
    Michigan
    November 17, 2011, 8:09 am

    Yes, they are still cleaning up the Kalamazoo River spill. Just read had to stop for the year with winter moving in.
    Lisa, Loved your quote. Can I use it?

  7. Eric Olson
    Michigan
    November 17, 2011, 7:53 am

    Great in depth article.
    Lisa, may I quote you?

  8. Ima Ryma
    November 17, 2011, 3:08 am

    The Ogallala Aquifer,
    Of vast fresh water underground.
    In the Great Plains it does occur,
    But where may it be future bound?
    Fresh water sources will become
    The most sought after precious prize.
    And thanks to pipelines to and from,
    To’s from from’s will capitalize.
    To powerful from powerless,
    Such U.S resources will drain,
    Leaving a fresh waterlessness,
    After flowing to China’s reign.

    Seeds of destiny have been sown.
    U.S. heartland – China will own.

  9. Piper
    Nebraska
    November 16, 2011, 11:01 pm

    It’s too soon to be ecstatic. TransCanada has been attending Nebraska legislature meetings and trying to get the proposed law to meet the needs of the oil industry instead of Nebraskans. The speaker made a “deal” with TransCanada, as though a “deal” was needed. Legislators keep saying they are not sure pipeline siting legislation is “legal” — apparently Nebraska is the only state not “allowed” to have such legislation. This attempt to fog the citizens is clear evidence, if any more were needed, of the insidious relationship between TransCanada and lawmakers, especially but hardly limited to Nebraska. The hard-won gains of Nebraskans and of their countless allies in the environmental community are being thrown away by the Nebraska legislature, and the only thing remaining between pipeline disaster is the Obama administration.

  10. Lisa Bracken
    Colorado
    November 16, 2011, 6:57 pm

    Tar sands suck. Mountain top removal sucks. Natural gas fracking sucks. It sucks fossil fuels out of the ground… life out of our earth… and momentum out of our efforts to advance our own civilization. It will take an alignment of sustained values and efforts to lead us toward a sustainable future… and leaders of vision to take us there today.