The ecologically sensitive Nebraska sandhills have become a flashpoint in the debate over whether the 1,702-mile Keystone XL pipeline should be built to transport tar sands crude oil in Canada across five Midwestern states to Texas. Ninety-two miles of the pipeline would pass through the sandhills, where an oil spill could be devastating.
TransCanada, the Canadian company that hopes to build the pipeline, says its sophisticated safety systems will protect the sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer that lies beneath them from contamination. TransCanada often points out, as spokesman Terry Cunha did in a recent email to SolveClimate News, that there are already "21,000 miles of pipelines crossing Nebraska, including 3,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. Many miles of these pipelines co-exist within the Ogallala aquifer."
We decided to check out those figures and dig a little deeper into how Nebraska regulates its pipelines. We found that while Cunha's numbers are accurate, there is more to the story. Here's a guide to help you sort it all out.
How Many Oil Pipelines Currently Run Through the Sandhills?
Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline in the Nebraska sandhills. It would cross through three counties within the sandhills—Boone, Holt and Rock. The only pipelines in those counties are 234 miles of natural gas pipelines.
What Kinds of Pipelines Can You Find in Nebraska?
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) divides the nation's pipelines into two major categories: natural gas pipelines and hazardous liquid pipelines. The term "hazardous liquid" includes crude oil, along with gasoline, jet fuel and ammonia.
Nebraska currently has 18,133 miles of natural gas and 3,149 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines, according to the PHMSA website and updated figures from an agency spokesman.
However, only 647 miles are used to transport crude oil, and a third of those miles were built by TransCanada. The company's existing oil sands pipeline—simply called Keystone—opened in eastern Nebraska in June 2010.
If approved, the Keystone XL would increase the state's crude oil pipeline mileage by 40 percent, or 255 miles. The volume of oil flowing through Nebraska would also increase dramatically, because the Keystone XL pipeline will be wider than the pipe used on the Keystone (36 inches in diameter versus 30 inches). TransCanada has proposed eventually running the Keystone XL at a capacity of 830,000 barrels per day, according to the State Department's final environmental impact statement (EIS) released Aug. 26. (That number is lower than the company's previous request to transport up to 900,000 barrels per day.) The first Keystone has a total capacity of 591,000 barrels per day.
Why are the Sandhills So Important?
The sandhills stretch across 19,600 square miles of central and northern Nebraska. The grass-covered sand dunes are "still pretty much wild prairie, which is really hard to find in this country," said Mike George, Nebraska field supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The environment is unique, he said, because the Ogallala aquifer lies close to the surface in the sandhills, and water bubbles up to form wetlands that provide an important habitat for nesting waterfowl. "You have a prairie in the desert [with] a lot of wetland oases—that makes it even more beneficial to wildlife."
The Ogallala aquifer is important in its own right. It covers an area of the High Plains larger than the state of California and provides 78 percent of the water used by Nebraskans as well as 83 percent of the state's irrigation water. (See Keystone XL Primer: How the Pipeline's Route Could Impact the Ogallala Aquifer for more information.)
Nebraska state senator Colby Coash grew up in the sandhills. As a child he used to collect remnants from the wagon trains that passed through over 100 years ago. On a recent trip to his family home, Coash found some broken dishes and a metal milk jug that he donated to a local museum. "It is a fragile piece of the earth," he said. "There are places in the sandhills where you can still see wagon rust from when the settlers came through."
Coash supports construction of the Keystone XL, but thinks TransCanada should reroute it away from the sandhills. In May he and four other Nebraska state senators wrote to the State Department asking for a more thorough environmental review and an analysis of alternative routes. "It's not the pipeline I'm opposed to, it's the route," Coash said. "This is [about] resource protection."