It wasn't that long ago that the people of Holt County, Neb. thought they had made a real impact on national policy.
Their opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline led project owner TransCanada to move the pipeline out of the Nebraska Sandhills, a fragile ecosystem that overlies the Ogallala aquifer. The company's release of the new route last week seemed to solidify that victory.
But some local landowners are feeling far from celebratory. They say their primary goal was to protect the Ogallala aquifer, but somewhere along the way, people became so intent on protecting the Sandhills that the true objective was lost.
"Water has always been first and foremost in our mind," said Tom Genung of Hastings, Neb., who owns ranchland in Holt County. "We were promised everything would be okay if [the pipeline] got out of the Sandhills ... but it's not."
TransCanada's new route is currently just a "corridor"—a 2,000-foot wide path that will eventually be whittled down to a narrower route. It is among several possible routes identified in a 54-page report that TransCanada submitted last week to Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the state agency in charge of the pipeline's environmental review.
The company's preferred corridor avoids the Sandhills of southwest Holt County, just as TransCanada promised it would. But it still crosses through northern Holt County, where the soil is often sandy and permeable and the water table is high—the same characteristics that make the Sandhills so vulnerable to the impact of an oil spill.
In some parts of the new corridor, the groundwater lies so close to the surface that the pipeline would run through the aquifer instead of over it. (See map of TransCanada's preferred Keystone XL route.)
Hydrogeologist Jim Goeke, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said an oil spill in northern Holt County would contaminate the local groundwater, just as it would in southwestern Holt County. "You still have the same kind of problems, essentially, but you get around the Sandhills, and that was the purpose of the rerouting."
The landowners' disappointment is compounded by the popular perception that the new route has addressed Nebraskans' concerns.
Ken Winston, a policy advocate with the Nebraska Sierra Club said some of those involved in the original fight have "kind of a sense of, 'well, we won that battle didn't we, so why do we have to refight it?'"
Winston said his group will continue to oppose the pipeline. "The main message we've been sending to our members is, the fight isn't over ... and that the latest routing proposal is just another example of why we need to continue fighting."
But the fight this time is being waged with fewer resources. Last fall, combined pressure from thousands of Nebraskans and national environmental groups forced Nebraska lawmakers to hold a special session to hammer out the Sandhills reroute. Since then, many organizations have pulled back, leaving local groups like Winston's Sierra Club chapter and Jane Kleeb's Bold Nebraska more or less on their own.
"Part of it is just that there are so many issues out there for environmental groups to work on," Winston said. "There's still support, it's just not on the same level. We still have connections. There's definitely no alienation or anything like that."
He said it's also harder to motivate people to fight when TransCanada has yet to submit their federal permit application. "It's kind of like punching at air."
Sandhills vs. the Aquifer
Much of the debate over the success of the reroute comes from the perception that protecting the Sandhills is the same as protecting the aquifer. The Ogallala aquifer is a critically important water source spanning eight states. Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills region sits directly on top of the aquifer, but the aquifer extends far beyond the Sandhills' borders.
"Originally, everyone was talking about the Sandhills and the aquifer," said Ernie Fellows, a retired rancher who lives near Mills, Neb., about three miles from where the pipeline would cross into the state. "Somehow when the special session came around the aquifer got dropped, and we've been having trouble getting people to talk about both together again."
Hydrogeologist Jim Goeke said the legislature's decision to "specifically concentrate on the Sandhills…left an open door for TransCanada."
The legislature's narrow focus also contradicts a letter from Neb. Gov. Dave Heineman, who wrote to President Obama last August urging him to deny the pipeline, because "maintaining and protecting Nebraska's water supply is very important to me and the residents of Nebraska."
"I want to emphasize that I am not opposed to pipelines," Heineman wrote. "... I am opposed to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route because it is directly over the Ogallala Aquifer."
"I think if you're protecting the ecological aspects of the Sandhills, the boundary we have is probably better than any of the other [available maps]," James Omernik, a retired EPA scientist and a principal author of the ecoregions map, told InsideClimate News last month. "If you are more concerned about the water table or sandy [soil] or any other characteristic, then you might want to build a buffer around the Sandhills that would include the characteristic you're trying to protect."
Goeke said the landowners have some valid concerns. The new route still crosses "areas with high water tables, but [it's] a lot less than the original route," he said.
Citing TransCanada's route-proposal document, Goeke said the preferred corridor would cross 10.5 miles where the groundwater lies 5 to 10 feet below the land surface, equal to "a little over six percent of the entire route through Nebraska."
Another 12.4 miles would cross where depth to water is 10 to 15 feet. The same document says the new route would not cross any regions where depth to water is between zero and five feet.
That calculation seems to ignore numerous river and stream crossings where the water lies close to the ground. Goeke speculated that TransCanada might have excluded the rivers because the company plans to bury the pipeline beneath rivers at the crossings.
InsideClimate News contacted TransCanada for comment, but the company didn't respond before deadline.
DEQ to Review Route
Now that TransCanada has chosen its preferred corridor, it's up to the DEQ to analyze the route for environmental impacts. DEQ spokesman Brian McManus said the agency will schedule informational meetings and distribute detailed maps that identify properties that could be impacted by the proposed route.
"And at that point, after we have our initial discussions with the public, and do some initial review, we're going to provide some feedback to TransCanada," McManus said. "Then is when it really gets into the detailed review process. TransCanada would finalize the route and submit it to the state for evaluation."
McManus said he could not comment on the technical aspects of the environmental review. He directed InsideClimate News to DEQ director Mike Linder, but Linder was not available to comment before deadline.
Pipeline opponents are wary of the DEQ process because they say it is less rigorous and less transparent than the review guidelines being drafted by the Public Service Commission. A bill that passed in November placed the PSC in charge of the Keystone XL review, but another bill called LB 1161, signed into law last week, gave DEQ control of the project.
Any route approved by the DEQ will be given to the governor for evaluation. Gov. Heineman has repeatedly expressed his support for the pipeline. While signing LB 1161 into law, he issued a statement that "Nebraska will move forward on the review process of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and any future pipelines that will create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil."