WASHINGTON—A growing determination by Nebraskans to protect their precious aquifer could give environmentalists a small victory in their fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pump heavy crude oil from Canada through America's heartland.
The momentum in Nebraska accelerated last month when Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican who supports the $7 billion pipeline project, told President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it should be rerouted to avoid the Ogallala Aquifer, the economic and environmental lifeblood of the Great Plains.
His surprise announcement in an Aug. 31 letter came on the heels of the State Department's final environmental evaluation of Keystone XL. That document emphasized that Heineman and the Nebraska Legislature have a potent tool at their disposal: the authority to dictate where and how, and even if, oil pipelines are buried in their state.
Until now, neither Heineman nor the Nebraska Legislature had shown much inclination to seize control of the pipeline route. The governor had declined to involve himself in the debate, sticking to a philosophy that the positioning of pipelines is a federal matter. For the most part, legislators followed suit.
The state has so few oil pipelines that the legislature has been content to let federal authorities at the Department of Transportation regulate them. When a state senator tried to transfer oversight responsibility to the state Public Service Commission earlier this year, her bill never emerged from the committee where it was introduced.
But a steady drumbeat from constituents concerned about their irreplaceable water source has evidently convinced the governor to leap off the fence. For instance, about 500 Nebraskans rallied at the governor's mansion Aug. 5 during a "Shine the Light on Heineman" event, and activists staffed a booth at the state fair. Controversy over the Keystone XL also has been almost daily fodder in local newspapers and on radio broadcasts. Heineman, who would be up for a third term in 2014, didn't respond to requests for comment.
The fact that the State Department has ignored similar pipeline rerouting requests from other politicians and the Environmental Protection Agency isn't stopping Nebraskans from forging ahead.
On Aug. 26, the same day the State Department released its final environmental evaluation, pro- and anti-pipeline forces announced they had formed the Save Our Sandhills coalition. Collaborators such as Bold Nebraska, the Sierra Club, the Nebraska Farmers Union and the League of Women Voters have the sole mission of forcing a Keystone XL detour around an ecologically fragile landscape where the aquifer lies close to the surface.
It's still unclear, however, what will happen to the overall project if Nebraska forces a reroute of nearly 300 miles of pipeline proposed within its borders. Conservation organizations said the project could be delayed by as much as a year, because easements would have to be obtained from a new set of property owners and because further environmental review might be needed. TransCanada did not respond to inquiries. A State Department spokeswoman would say only that officials are now focused on whether or not the pipeline is in the national interest.
"Our bottom line is, we want to stop it," Ken Winston, policy director with the Nebraska Sierra Club, told Inside Climate News. "But if we can get it rerouted, then that would be a really big deal. This isn't one of those deals where if we can't stop it, we’re going to take our ball and go home. We want to prevent damage in whatever way we can."
"We’ve just poked the giant with the stick but it's far from dead," he said. "We need to keep fighting."
Delaying Nebraska's Pipeline?
If it is built, TransCanada's Keystone XL will pump diluted bitumen—a particularly dirty and corrosive type of heavy crude—1,702 miles from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Due to the international nature of the project, Clinton is tasked with granting or denying the required presidential permit. She has vowed to make that decision by the end of the year.
State Sen. Ken Haar said the Save Our Sandhills coalition will move fast to make its case at both the state and federal levels.