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Keystone XL Primer: Why Nebraska Is Ground Zero in the Pipeline Fight

The Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline to run through the Nebraska sandhills, a fragile area with few pipelines of any kind

Sep 2, 2011
(Page 2 of 3 )
Oil pipelines in the field

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman recently urged President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to deny the pipeline permit, citing concerns about its impact on the aquifer. Two scientists from the University of Nebraska have warned policymakers that researchers know little about the impacts of aquifer contamination. Last Friday, state senator Ken Haar helped form a coalition to campaign for a route that avoids the sandhills.

What About Other Pipelines in the Sandhills?

Nebraska's entire sandhills region has 1,214 miles of natural gas pipelines and just 127 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. Thirteen counties in Nebraska have no pipelines at all, including nine counties in the sandhills.

George, the Fish & Wildlife supervisor, thinks pipelines are relatively rare in the sandhills because the area is so sparsely populated that fewer pipelines are needed. (Nearly 80 percent of Nebraska's gas pipelines are intrastate distribution and transmission lines that serve local energy needs.) It also costs more to dig in the sandy soils, he said, so pipeline companies may avoid the region on purpose.

Who Regulates Nebraska's Pipelines?

Nebraska's intrastate natural gas pipelines are regulated by the state Fire Marshal's Division of Pipeline Safety.

Nebraska doesn't have a state agency to regulate oil pipelines. It leaves that job to PHMSA, which is part of the federal Department of Transportation.

PHMSA handles safety inspections and approves permits for new oil pipelines as well as natural gas lines that cross Nebraska's state borders. The agency also receives reports of oil and gas spills. Officials from U.S. Fish & Wildlife, PHMSA and the Fire Marshal's office all say that, as far as they know, there has never been a significant oil spill in the sandhills or in Nebraska's portion of the Ogallala aquifer.

Because the Keystone XL would cross an international border, TransCanada needs a presidential permit to start construction in the United States. The State Department, which is in charge of the permitting process, released its final EIS last week and found that "there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed [pipeline]" if TransCanada follows existing regulations.

The public and other federal agencies such as the EPA have 90 days to comment on the environmental impact statement. Secretary Hillary Clinton will then decide whether to approve the pipeline. After she makes her decision, federal agencies will have 15 days to appeal to President Obama if they choose.

What's the Track Record for TransCanada's First Keystone Pipeline?

The existing Keystone has leaked more than a dozen times since it came online in June 2010. According to TransCanada's Terry Cunha, there were 14 spills in the U.S. and two in Canada of more than five gallons each, including one on May 7 that released over 20,000 gallons at a pump station in North Dakota.

That spill, along with another incident later in May, prompted PHMSA to issue a corrective action order that temporarily shut down the Keystone on June 3. TransCanada was told it had to meet 14 safety conditions, and the company was allowed to re-start the pipeline on June 5 after complying with three of those standards. A PHMSA spokesman said TransCanada is working on the remaining actions.

What's Being Done to Reduce the Risk of Spills Along the Keystone XL?

In early August, TransCanada said the Keystone XL would follow a list of 57 safety conditions set by the State Department. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that the conditions go "above and beyond" what's required by law. The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said most of the conditions repeat the minimum standards set by PHMSA and other pipeline regulators.

Anthony Swift, an NRDC energy analyst, said it's tough to detect leaks from large pipelines like the Keystone XL. Safety systems work by identifying the percentage of oil that doesn't make it from point A to point B along a pipeline—so larger pipelines can create more serious spills. The Keystone XL can transport up to 830,000 barrels a day; by comparison, the pipeline that leaked 840,000 gallons (the equivalent of 20,000 barrels) into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in July 2010 has a capacity of just 190,000 barrels a day. That pipeline is owned by Enbridge, another Canadian company based in Alberta.

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