The question of how an oil spill from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline might affect the Ogallala aquifer was raised again this month, in a report the U.S. State Department will use to help it decide whether to approve or reject the controversial project.
The report concluded that a spill would have little effect on Nebraska's primary source of drinking water, because the oil would spread less than a thousand feet within the High Plains/Ogallala aquifer. The impact on the Ogallala aquifer would be "local," not "regional," said the report, which was prepared by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and HDR Engineering, an Omaha-based consulting firm.
Scientists interviewed by InsideClimate News agreed with the report's conclusions that an underground spill probably wouldn't travel far and that a single accident wouldn't damage the entire Ogallala aquifer. But they also said the report didn't take into account other important factors:
After years of protests and lobbying, the Obama administration is expected to decide within months on the fate of the 1,200-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The State Department is finalizing a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the project, which would ship tar sands oil from Canada, through America's heartland, and to the Gulf Coast via other pipelines.
The agency will use the SEIS—expected any day now—to help determine whether the project is in the "national interest," a term that includes economic, energy security and climate change considerations. Due to the pipeline's high profile, President Obama will play an important role in the decision.
Uncertainty and rumors are rife, partly because Hurricane Sandy reignited concern about human-caused climate change and fossil fuels, but largely because the two top officials who bear main responsibility for the decision will soon be replaced. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson will step down this month.
This was the year "dilbit" registered on the U.S. political and public radar in a major way.
Bitumen is a heavy crude oil mined from Canada's oil sands region. The bitumen is so thick that it must be diluted with liquid chemicals before it can flow through pipelines—hence the term dilbit.
Environmental groups have long opposed oil sands production due to its climate change impacts. But dilbit is also significant because it doesn't behave like conventional crude oil when it spills into water. Those risks became apparent in July 2010, when a ruptured pipeline spewed more than a million gallons of dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
Revelations that preventable safety lapses were behind Enbridge's disastrous oil spill in Michigan thrust the issue of pipeline safety into the mainstream this year.
A two-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in July found that a "complete breakdown of safety" at Enbridge led to the 2010 oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River. The spill originated from a ruptured pipeline that spewed more than 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen (oil from Canada's tar sands) into the water. It was one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history and forced residents to relocate, caused health problems and left a mess that's still being cleaned up today.
The NTSB report criticized the Canadian pipeline giant for inadequate safety inspections and other human errors that resulted in Enbridge ignoring the spill for 17 hours.
An agency official compared Enbridge employees to the "Keystone Kops"—a phrase that drew immediate comparisons to a separate Keystone, the Keystone XL pipeline that's being proposed to cross the Ogallala aquifer, the nation's most important source of irrigation and drinking water.
In 1998, activists in Austin, Texas filed a lawsuit to protect their local aquifer from a proposed gasoline pipeline. By the time the project was built, the operator had been forced to add $60 million in safety features, including sensor cables that could detect leaks as small as three gallons a day. Some say the Longhorn pipeline is the safest pipeline in Texas, or perhaps the nation.
Now a much larger pipeline—the Keystone XL—is being proposed across the Ogallala/High Plains aquifer, one of the nation's most important sources of drinking and irrigation water. Yet none of the major features that protect Austin's much smaller aquifer are included in the plan. In fact, they haven't even been discussed.
The leak detection technology that will be used on the Keystone XL, for instance, is standard for the nation's crude oil pipelines and rarely detects leaks smaller than 1 percent of the pipeline's flow. The Keystone will have a capacity of 29 million gallons per day—so a spill would have to reach 294,000 gallons per day to trigger its leak detection technology.
The Keystone XL also won't get two other safeguards found on the 19-mile stretch of the pipeline over Austin's aquifer: a concrete cap that protects the Longhorn from construction-related punctures, and daily aerial or foot patrols to check for tiny spills that might seep to the surface.
For years, the controversy over natural gas drilling has focused on the water and air quality problems linked to hydraulic fracturing, the process where chemicals are blasted deep underground to release tightly bound natural gas deposits.
But a new study reports that a set of chemicals called non-methane hydrocarbons, or NMHCs, is found in the air near drilling sites even when fracking isn't in progress.
According to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, more than 50 NMHCs were found near gas wells in rural Colorado, including 35 that affect the brain and nervous system. Some were detected at levels high enough to potentially harm children who are exposed to them before birth.
The authors say the source of the chemicals is likely a mix of the raw gas that is vented from the wells and emissions from industrial equipment used during the gas production process.
The paper cites two other recent studies on NMHCs near gas drilling sites in Colorado. But the new study was conducted over a longer period of time and tested for more chemicals than those studies did.
"To our knowledge, no study of this kind has been published to date," the authors wrote.
A lawsuit against pipeline company Enbridge Inc. was returned to Michigan state court on Tuesday, after a judge ruled that a group that is trying to stop work on the company's 210-mile pipeline replacement project could not pursue the case in federal court. The ruling didn't address the merits of the case.
POLAR (Protect Our Land And Rights), the nonprofit group that filed the suit, is seeking an injunction against Enbridge, claiming the Canadian company hasn't obtained all the necessary state and local permits.
"We want Enbridge to follow the existing laws," said POLAR founder Jeff Axt, who owns property along the route. "These aren't obstructions recently created to stop a pipeline. These are existing laws, regulations and ordinances that have been on township books for years, that need to be complied with before the project proceeds."
Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation: "Once we're back in state court...we'll be prepared to proceed there."
Eleanor Fairchild has been arrested twice: once outside the White House in August 2011 and again last month while standing on her own property near Winnsboro, Texas. In both cases, the 78-year old landowner was protesting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which will cut through her farm on its way from Cushing, Okla. to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Fairchild's latest arrest has made her a celebrity of the anti-pipeline movement, which was once dominated by the nation's largest environmental groups. In recent months, however, those groups have pulled back from Texas, leaving the spotlight on landowners like Fairchild and on the Tar Sands Blockade, a grassroots organization launched in June with the goal of stopping the project through nonviolent civil disobedience.
Although the mainstream environmental groups say they're still committed to stopping the Keystone XL, they've shifted their focus to the northern leg of the project, which would run from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska and which still lacks a federal permit required for construction. Stopping the southern leg—which begins in Oklahoma and runs through Fairchild's property on its way to the Texas coast—would be much more difficult, given that it's already under construction.
Texas landowners who oppose the pipeline are now fending for themselves and hoping that the Tar Sands Blockade will draw attention to their plight.
Less than a week after President Obama's re-election, environmental groups are again pressuring him to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. This time, they have a new argument: that the heavy Canadian crude oil the line would carry isn't necessary for energy security, because U.S. oil production is booming to record levels even as consumption drops.
"The environmental community has established the Keystone XL as a real priority," said Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for the climate action group 350.org. "People want to stop it. They expect the president to stop it, and we're going to stop it."
350.org and other groups have already scheduled an anti-pipeline protest for November 18 in Washington, D.C. Emails announcing the demonstration were sent just minutes after Obama's victory Tuesday night.
For much of the Northeast, Hurricane Sandy was a harsh wake-up call to the extreme weather destruction that can be amplified by climate change. But Sandy's warning is also resonating in states further south along the Atlantic, which escaped the brunt of the storm but face equal, if not greater, risks from the combined effects of sea level rise and intense storms.
Florida is particularly vulnerable. A 2007 climate change study that mapped how a 9.8-foot sea level rise would affect New York City—maps eerily similar to the flooding from Sandy's 9-foot storm surge—also offered a look at how Florida would be affected. If anything, the images are even more chilling.
The scenarios for Florida are based on a sea level rise of roughly 3 to 7 feet. The coastal fringe of downtown Miami, where many of the city's luxury hotels are located, is covered in blue—the map's symbol for inundated land. Nearly all of Key West would be underwater, except for a few pockets of high ground including the area near Key West Cemetery. Fort Lauderdale would be flooded along most of its coast, as would downtown Tampa.