How the Austin Aquifer Got Extra Protections
Longhorn opponents had two major advantages in their lawsuit to protect Austin's aquifer: money and popular opinion.
The lawsuit was filed by the city of Austin, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and several landowners. But most if not all of the funding came from Holly Corp., a Texas refinery owner that saw Longhorn's gasoline pipeline as a competitive threat to its business. (Longhorn later sued Holly for antitrust violations. Holly then countersued alleging unfair competition.)
Without Holly's money, it would have been difficult for the pipeline opponents to finance their battle against Longhorn—a partnership of oil giants BP Amoco, Exxon and other companies. Renea Hicks, who represented the Conservation District in the case, said Holly's funding allowed the opponents to hire top-notch experts and to persist for the three years it took to settle the suit.
The case also had wide support among the politically active and environmentally conscious residents of Austin, a city of 600,000 at the time and a liberal enclave in a largely conservative state. The fuels carried by the Longhorn are highly flammable and spread quickly when spilled into water. Not only does the Edwards aquifer supply drinking water to the Austin area, it also feeds a popular swimming hole in the city's Zilker Park.
"Everyone got involved," Hicks said. "The purity of that [spring] is kind of a symbol in Austin."
Kirk Holland, a geologist and general manager of the Conservation District, said that in the end, Longhorn "essentially had to make those extraordinary commitments in order to operate [in this area]. That pipeline is the best-protected, most monitored pipeline in Texas—and maybe the nation."
"Keystone XL deserves more, probably, in my personal opinion," Holland added.
Although the Keystone XL would run 1,200 miles across the nation's heartland, the area of greatest concern has always been Nebraska, where it crosses 222 miles of the Ogallala aquifer. Last year, TransCanada agreed to move the line out of Nebraska's Sandhills region, a fragile landscape that became a symbol for the project's opponents. But the new route still goes through 20 miles of Nebraska where the water table is less than 20 feet below ground—high enough for groundwater to bubble to the surface during the spring. An additional 70 miles crosses areas where the water table is 20 to 50 feet underground.
Last year, just weeks before TransCanada agreed to the Sandhills reroute, the company offered to build a concrete containment structure around a pump station planned for a sensitive area of Holt County. It also agreed to post a $100 million bond to be used if the company failed to clean up an oil spill in the Sandhills. TransCanada withdrew both offers after the pipeline was rerouted.
"Those commitments were specific to the area that went through the Nebraska Sandhills where the aquifer was at or near the surface," said Howard, the company spokesman. "Since the new route will go through an area that is not part of the defined Nebraska Sandhills, those measures are not required."
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) requires operators to follow more stringent rules in High Consequence Areas, or HCAs, which are considered especially vulnerable to the effects of an oil spill. Pipelines that could affect HCAs are built with thicker walls and the insides are inspected at least once every five years.
Najafi, the University of Texas engineer, said the entire aquifer under Nebraska should qualify as an HCA.
"Nebraska is a sensitive area, and they need to treat it like that," he said. "In Nebraska, they need extra measures to protect the water. We can't live without water."
PHMSA doesn't release the locations of HCAs to the public due to security reasons, so it's unclear how much of the Ogallala aquifer falls within an HCA.
According to Howard, only three miles of the route in Nebraska crosses an HCA. But he said that TransCanada would exceed PHMSA requirements by running an inspection device through the entire pipeline, including areas outside HCAs.
Little Known About How a Spill Might Affect the Aquifer
The Keystone XL was originally supposed to run from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. But in January 2012 the Obama administration turned down TransCanada's application for the State Department permit it needed to cross the U.S.-Canada border, and TransCanada split the project in two. The segment from Cushing, Okla. to Texas, which did not need a federal permit, is already under construction. A decision on the northern segment is expected in early 2013.
Much of the opposition to the Keystone XL has focused on the type of oil it would carry: Bitumen is a particularly heavy form of crude oil extracted from Canada's tar sands region. It is so thick that it can't flow through pipelines until it's diluted with liquid chemicals to form what's known as diluted bitumen or "dilbit."
The same federal standards that apply to gasoline and crude oil pipelines also apply to pipelines carrying dilbit—even though dilbit doesn't behave like conventional crude oil when it spills into water.