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Ogallala Aquifer Report Fails to Settle Concerns Over Oil Spill Risk

A thorough and adequate study of the impacts has not been done, a scientist says; it's a rigorous and comprehensive review, says TransCanada's CEO.

Jan 14, 2013
(Page 2 of 4 )
Texas landowner protests construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pip

Pipeline opponents say the study is incomplete and tainted by conflicts of interest: HDR, the consulting firm hired by the DEQ, has worked on previous TransCanada projects. DEQ spokesman Brian McManus said the agency reviewed HDR's record and doesn't believe it creates a problem.

The agency's report is one of the last hurdles TransCanada faces in its years-long effort to get the pipeline approved in Nebraska. The project originally was routed through the Nebraska Sandhills, a particularly sensitive region over the aquifer. Under pressure from landowners and environmentalists, TransCanada moved it out of that area in November 2011. But the project still faces opposition from landowners and environmental groups, who will hold their fourth large protest outside the White House on Feb. 17.

The company is now waiting for Gov. Dave Heineman—who supports the pipeline—to sign off on the route. Heineman has until February to submit the report, along with his comments, to the U.S. State Department. The federal agency has ultimate authority over the Alberta-to-Nebraska section of the Keystone project because it crosses an international border.

Groundwater Concerns

The Nebraska portion of the Keystone XL is now slated to pass through 12 counties and 163 rivers and streams. Ten of the counties have no oil pipelines at all. The southernmost counties—Saline and Jefferson—contain a Kinder Morgan pipeline and a TransCanada pipeline that began operating in 2010.

Although the new route avoids the Sandhills, it still crosses areas with permeable soils and shallow groundwater, the same features that make the Sandhills vulnerable to contamination. The groundwater along much of the 274-mile route through Nebraska lies 20-50 feet beneath the surface. And 13 miles of the line crosses land where the aquifer is less than 10 feet underground.

Boettcher said the fear of groundwater contamination is why he continues to oppose the pipeline, even though the new route is now 15 miles from his land. "This water is just as valuable for me as for my neighbor 15 miles apart…I'm staying in this fight because [Keystone XL] is still going through fragile soils, wet ground and wet lands, and is still crossing high water tables."

Groundwater experts say it's virtually impossible to restore a contaminated aquifer to pristine conditions, although it can be cleaned up to meet federal drinking water standards. The time and cost required for such a cleanup depends on the location of the spill, the composition of the spilled oil, the amount of oil released, the movement of the groundwater and the location of nearby water wells—details that the DEQ report didn't analyze.

TransCanada has told the DEQ that it will test drinking water and livestock wells within 300 feet of the route before operating the pipeline. In the event of a spill, that baseline data could help determine whether oil had seeped into nearby wells.

Landowners like Luebbe are wary of staking their futures on TransCanada's promise. "How do we know they're testing for what's actually in [the oil]?" she said, since some of the dilbit chemicals are trade secrets. "I just don't trust them."

One of the landowners' biggest concerns is that a slow leak would go undetected because so much of the Keystone XL runs through remote areas. TransCanada has run newspaper ads assuring Nebraskans that its leak detection technology will quickly alert the company's control center in Canada of any accidents. But InsideClimate News recently reported that the leak detection systems used on most of the nation's pipelines rarely detect spills smaller than 1 percent of the pipeline's flow, which for the Keystone XL would be hundreds of thousands of gallons per day. An analysis of federal data showed that smaller spills are more often detected by the general public or pipeline workers than leak detection systems.

What Happens to Dilbit in an Aquifer?

The lack of information about a major type of fuel the Keystone XL would carry—diluted bitumen, or dilbit—has been a sticking point for years. Although the Keystone XL would transport a small amount of conventional crude oil from North Dakota, the bulk of its contents would be bitumen, a particularly thick oil from Canada's oil sands region. Much of that oil will be shipped as dilbit, a combination of bitumen and light liquid chemicals used to dilute the bitumen so it can be transported in pipelines.

There have been no independent studies on how dilbit behaves when it spills into an aquifer.

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