Retired first grade teacher Beth Baker-Knuttila has so much she wants to tell the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission about why adding an oil pipeline near her beloved Portage Lake isn't a good idea.
On Thursday she'll have just three minutes to try to convince the PUC to reject a proposed Enbridge, Inc. pipeline that would cut across 144 lakes, streams and rivers, and skirt the shores of the Park Rapids lake that has been her home for 35 years.
The 616–mile Sandpiper pipeline is one of the first major pipelines designed to carry crude oil out of the booming Bakken Shale region of North Dakota.
It will begin in the northwest corner of North Dakota and cross into Minnesota then pass 299 miles through the heart of the state to Superior, Wisc. Once running, it could carry nearly 10 million gallons of crude oil a day—an estimated 20 percent of the oil produced in the Bakken—to refineries in the Midwest and East and Canada.
"There's just so much at stake here," Baker-Knuttila said. "It's not just about my home. It's about protecting the beautiful natural resources against some tragic accident."
Michigan environmental officials are drafting a settlement with Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge, Inc. over a series of violations of the state's water laws that occurred earlier this year.
The settlement would keep Enbridge out of court while requiring the company to beef up its environmental practices when testing the new pipeline it is building to replace Line 6B, which ruptured in 2010.
That spill fouled nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River with heavy crude oil from Canada's tar sands region. The cleanup effort, which is still on-going, has so far cost the company nearly $1 billion. Enbridge also was fined $3.7 million for breaking as many as two-dozen federal pipeline safety rules.
The 210-mile replacement line, which will run from Griffith, Ind. to Ontario, Canada, is almost a year behind schedule. The project will be further delayed because Enbridge recently decided to suspend work in three Michigan counties for the winter.
The question of how an oil spill from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline might affect the Ogallala aquifer was raised again this month, in a report the U.S. State Department will use to help it decide whether to approve or reject the controversial project.
The report concluded that a spill would have little effect on Nebraska's primary source of drinking water, because the oil would spread less than a thousand feet within the High Plains/Ogallala aquifer. The impact on the Ogallala aquifer would be "local," not "regional," said the report, which was prepared by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and HDR Engineering, an Omaha-based consulting firm.
Scientists interviewed by InsideClimate News agreed with the report's conclusions that an underground spill probably wouldn't travel far and that a single accident wouldn't damage the entire Ogallala aquifer. But they also said the report didn't take into account other important factors:
In 1998, activists in Austin, Texas filed a lawsuit to protect their local aquifer from a proposed gasoline pipeline. By the time the project was built, the operator had been forced to add $60 million in safety features, including sensor cables that could detect leaks as small as three gallons a day. Some say the Longhorn pipeline is the safest pipeline in Texas, or perhaps the nation.
Now a much larger pipeline—the Keystone XL—is being proposed across the Ogallala/High Plains aquifer, one of the nation's most important sources of drinking and irrigation water. Yet none of the major features that protect Austin's much smaller aquifer are included in the plan. In fact, they haven't even been discussed.
The leak detection technology that will be used on the Keystone XL, for instance, is standard for the nation's crude oil pipelines and rarely detects leaks smaller than 1 percent of the pipeline's flow. The Keystone will have a capacity of 29 million gallons per day—so a spill would have to reach 294,000 gallons per day to trigger its leak detection technology.
The Keystone XL also won't get two other safeguards found on the 19-mile stretch of the pipeline over Austin's aquifer: a concrete cap that protects the Longhorn from construction-related punctures, and daily aerial or foot patrols to check for tiny spills that might seep to the surface.
A primary concern about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline is that a leak would contaminate the Ogallala aquifer, one of the nation's most important sources of drinking and irrigation water. InsideClimate News is republishing this investigative story from ProPublica because it highlights another risk to U.S. aquifers: The EPA is allowing some of them to be used as dumping grounds.
Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water.
In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.
EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.
"You are sacrificing these aquifers," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. "By definition, you are putting pollution into them. ... If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go."
Oil drilling has sparked a frenzied prosperity in Jeff Keller's formerly quiet corner of western North Dakota in recent years, bringing an infusion of jobs and reviving moribund local businesses.
But Keller, a natural resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, has seen a more ominous effect of the boom, too: Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region's land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.
Hydraulic fracturing—the controversial process behind the spread of natural gas drilling —is enabling oil companies to reach previously inaccessible reserves in North Dakota, triggering a turnaround not only in the state's fortunes, but also in domestic energy production. North Dakota now ranks second behind only Texas in oil output nationwide.
The downside is waste—lots of it. Companies produce millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater, known as brine, as part of drilling and fracking each well. Drillers are supposed to inject this material thousands of feet underground into disposal wells, but some of it isn't making it that far.
A series of earthquakes that rumbled from an oil and gas wastewater well in Ohio last year has highlighted the state's new role in the regional drilling landscape. Over the last couple of years, Ohio has become a dumping ground for wastewater.
Last year, drillers pumped more than 500 million gallons of toxic fluid—nearly 40 percent more than in 2010—into the state's injections wells, where energy companies pump waste into porous rock formations deep underground for permanent storage. With more than 170 injection wells in operation, Ohio is by far the region's leader in this area, with New York and Pennsylvania each having only a handful of injection wells. Ohio's regulators approved 29 new injection wells last year. Applications for 19 more are pending.
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."
For more than 100 years and maybe back to the days of outlaw Butch Cassidy, water from the Green River has nourished fields of sweet watermelons near the tiny town of Green River, Utah.
But now a part of that water may be siphoned off for another use: cooling the twin reactors of a nuclear power plant that would tower above the town and its melons.
The nuclear facility is the concept of Blue Castle Holdings, a Utah-based and politically connected upstart nuclear development company that has been working on the project for more than three years.
If the $16 billion facility is built, it would generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 3 million households.