Rep. Tim Griffin, a staunch supporter of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, recently asked ExxonMobil to move another, smaller oil pipeline away from a major water source in his home state of Arkansas.
It's a contradiction that grates on opponents of the Keystone, which would run through a critically important aquifer that supplies irrigation and drinking water to Nebraska and seven other states.
"What's good for Arkansas is good for Nebraska," anti-Keystone activist Jane Kleeb said in an email. "Rep. Griffin showed courage and common sense asking Exxon to move the tar sands pipeline away from the water. The same request should apply to all pipelines, especially Keystone XL that lies [in] the Ogallala aquifer and crosses over 200 bodies of water and family wells."
Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben had a more succinct response to Griffin's position: "Always nice when people are willing to let others run risks they'd prefer to spurn."
The Keystone XL would cross more than 100 miles of the Ogallala aquifer, including a dozen miles in Nebraska that are particularly vulnerable due to the sandy soils and high water table. Construction on the southern half of the pipeline, in Texas and Oklahoma, is nearly finished, but the northern leg from Canada to Nebraska needs a permit from the Obama administration before it can be built.
The Arkansas pipeline Griffin is worried about is ExxonMobil's 65-year-old Pegasus line, which passes through the town of Mayflower. Many residents weren't even aware of its existence until it ruptured on March 29 and sent more than 200,000 gallons of dilbit—a heavy form of oil called bitumen that is diluted with liquid chemicals—into a Mayflower subdivision. (The Keystone would also carry dilbit.)
A stretch of the 850-mile Pegasus runs through the Lake Maumelle watershed, which provides drinking water to 400,000 people. Although the spill didn't affect the watershed, pressure is mounting for Exxon to relocate the line as a precaution. In early April, the board of Central Arkansas Water (CAW)—the utility that manages the watershed—adopted a resolution asking Exxon to move the pipeline out of the watershed within the next five years.
Five days later, Rep. Griffin wrote a letter to ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson supporting the utility's decision.
"We must do all we can to prevent accidents like this from happening," Griffin wrote. "Currently, the Pegasus Pipeline runs through about 13 miles of the Lake Maumelle watershed and also crosses some of the lake's tributaries…I urge ExxonMobil to develop and implement CAW's request and work to provide an effective plan to relocate the pipeline."
At the same time, however, Griffin has maintained his support for the Keystone XL.
On his official website, he calls for the approval of the Keystone, saying it's "one of the biggest no-brainers I have seen since being elected to Congress. The pipeline would provide a big dose of shovel-ready jobs and energy independence—now."
Less than a week after the Mayflower spill, Griffin told the Huffington Post that the accident was "horrible," but "pipelines are the safest way to move oil."
"I don't think anyone has quit driving their car, using plastics in their home, or flying on airplanes since this spill," he said. "And as long as we need energy…we have to find the safest way to deliver it."
Ken Winston, a policy advocate with Nebraska's Sierra Club, said the congressman's stance on Keystone—which would carry almost 10 times as much oil as the Pegasus line—simply isn't consistent with his pledge to protect Arkansas' water.
"If we're going to keep one pipeline away from a watershed or aquifer, it makes sense to keep one that's 10 times as big out of a larger and potentially more valuable aquifer," Winston said.
Griffin's office did not return requests for comment about the congressman's contradictory positions on the Keystone and Pegasus pipelines.
Central Arkansas Water's request that the Pegasus pipeline be moved out of the watershed has been supported in similar resolutions passed by the City of Little Rock and Pulaski County officials.
When InsideClimate News asked Exxon if the company had responded to the request to move the pipeline, spokesman Aaron Stryk did not answer directly.
In an email, Stryk said the company has worked with Central Arkansas Water "over the past several years to discuss these concerns, tour the area, and conduct joint response exercises. We are committed to maintaining an open dialog with CAW and other stakeholders as we finalize our repair and restoration plans" for the Pegasus pipeline, "and to continue evaluating longer term alternatives to address their concerns."
John Tynan, the watershed protection manager for Central Arkansas Water, said the utility has worked with Exxon to mitigate the pipeline's risk to the watershed—but relocation is the only way to eliminate the risk. The line currently runs within 600 feet of Lake Maumelle, the watershed's principal source of drinking water.
On May 2, Griffin and other Arkansas officials met to discuss the pipeline relocation and ways to ensure that the line is safe as they begin discussions with ExxonMobil. Griffin's office tweeted a photo from the meeting, showing him talking with Mayflower's mayor, Mark Stodola.
Exxon was invited to the meeting but did not attend.
On Thursday, two Mayflower residents will travel to Washington, D.C. to deliver a letter to the Obama administration urging them to deny the Keystone permit. Later this month, Griffin and other House Republicans are expected to vote in favor of a bill they say would speed the pipeline's approval by taking the decision away from President Obama.