By Michael Wunder – Contributor
A proposed expansion to an existing crude oil pipeline running discreetly beneath Nebraska soil found itself in the cross-hairs of political and environmental groups across the state.The Keystone XL pipeline expansion would run from Alberta, Canada to Nederland, Texas. During its 1,661-mile stretch, the pipeline would travel beneath the Sand Hills of western Nebraska, directly over the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 85 percent of Nebraskans.
Proponents of the pipeline say its presence will decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create domestic jobs. Opponents of the pipeline are concerned that a leak would taint the aquifer irreparably.
There is “no doubt” TransCanada would assume responsibility and contain a spill along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, said TransCanada’s senior communications specialist Terry Cunha.
“TransCanada will do what is necessary to repair the system,” Cunha said. “This isn’t our first attempt at building a pipeline.”
Opponents are skeptical.
A group has been protesting the construction of the Keystone expansion since the project’s inception. The group wasn’t in existence when the original Keystone pipeline was constructed in 2008.
“We don’t trust TransCanada on many levels,” said Jane Kleeb, from the politcal group Bold Nebraska. ” “The first [pipeline] snuck by Nebraska citizens, but Nebraskans don’t need double the trouble.”
The group is also concerned because a trust has not been set up in case of an emergency on the Keystone XL, Kleeb said. If a trust were set aside, it would ensure Nebraskans along the pipeline would be compensated for any spill.
“There’s not even a trust set aside for the original pipeline,” Kleeb said. “Leaks happen.”
Cunha said he has “no idea” about any trusts.
TransCanada has done all necessary tests to determine the pipeline’s safety, Cunha said. The project’s draft Environmental Impact Statement declared the pipeline to be a “very safe system” with “limited impacts” on the environment.
Investigations by other scientists display different results.
“A small volume leak would probably not present a serious problem for regional groundwater and could be contained locally without too much trouble,” said John Gates, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “On the other hand, a large amount of oil from a pipeline rupture would be difficult to contain or remediate. In such a case, I would expect hydrocarbon chemicals to persist in shallow groundwater for years. There would also be a possibility of contaminated groundwater discharging to lakes or rivers.”
Opponents of the pipeline are also concerned that the shifting Sand Hills soil will expose the pipeline to potential hazards.
Nebraska Sen. Cap Dierks, who represents Nebraska’s 40th District, introduced a bill in January to the Natural Resources Committee proposing that the pipeline be built five feet underground and a percentage of oil revenue paid to schools and landowners within counties the pipeline crossed. LB 755 would also have granted landowners protection from litigation if they accidentally damage the pipeline.
The bill was indefinitely postponed in February. The main issue faulting the bill was its potential unconstitutionality, said Nebraska Sen. Kate Sullivan.
TransCanada opposed the legislation.
“It includes provisions that would compromise pipeline safety that would violate federal law and the U.S. Constitution, and that would impose significant increased costs on Nebraskans and on the costs of energy and goods throughout the United States,” Cunha said.
TransCanada has reportedly donated over $330,000 to Nebraska lobbyists who opposed the bill, Kleeb said.
Cunha did not respond to Kleeb’s comment.
The ultimate decision on the Keystone XL’s fate lies with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Environmental Protection Agency had urged Clinton to keep the comment period open until Sept. 30. A decision may not be made until April 2011.
On Oct. 21, Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson criticized Clinton’s remarks made at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco earlier this month. Clinton allegedly suggested that the pipeline’s expansion would likely be approved.
In a letter addressed to the Clinton, Sen. Nelson expressed his “deep concern” over her remarks. He said the decision should be based on science rather than politics, and should be made after taking into consideration the impact on Nebraska’s Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer.