Keystone XL Primer: Why Nebraska Is Ground Zero in the Pipeline Fight

The Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline to run through the Nebraska sandhills, a fragile area with few pipelines of any kind

Oil pipelines in the field
Credit: istockphoto

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The ecologically sensitive Nebraska sandhills have become a flashpoint in the debate over whether the 1,702-mile Keystone XL pipeline should be built to transport tar sands crude oil in Canada across five Midwestern states to Texas. Ninety-two miles of the pipeline would pass through the sandhills, where an oil spill could be devastating.

TransCanada, the Canadian company that hopes to build the pipeline, says its sophisticated safety systems will protect the sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer that lies beneath them from contamination. TransCanada often points out, as spokesman Terry Cunha did in a recent email to SolveClimate News, that there are already “21,000 miles of pipelines crossing Nebraska, including 3,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. Many miles of these pipelines co-exist within the Ogallala aquifer.”

We decided to check out those figures and dig a little deeper into how Nebraska regulates its pipelines. We found that while Cunha’s numbers are accurate, there is more to the story. Here’s a guide to help you sort it all out.

How Many Oil Pipelines Currently Run Through the Sandhills?


Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline in the Nebraska sandhills. It would cross through three counties within the sandhills—Boone, Holt and Rock. The only pipelines in those counties are 234 miles of natural gas pipelines.

What Kinds of Pipelines Can You Find in Nebraska?

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) divides the nation’s pipelines into two major categories: natural gas pipelines and hazardous liquid pipelines. The term “hazardous liquid” includes crude oil, along with gasoline, jet fuel and ammonia.

Nebraska currently has 18,133 miles of natural gas and 3,149 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines, according to the PHMSA website and updated figures from an agency spokesman.

However, only 647 miles are used to transport crude oil, and a third of those miles were built by TransCanada. The company’s existing oil sands pipeline—simply called Keystone—opened in eastern Nebraska in June 2010.

If approved, the Keystone XL would increase the state’s crude oil pipeline mileage by 40 percent, or 255 miles. The volume of oil flowing through Nebraska would also increase dramatically, because the Keystone XL pipeline will be wider than the pipe used on the Keystone (36 inches in diameter versus 30 inches). TransCanada has proposed eventually running the Keystone XL at a capacity of 830,000 barrels per day, according to the State Department’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) released Aug. 26. (That number is lower than the company’s previous request to transport up to 900,000 barrels per day.) The first Keystone has a total capacity of 591,000 barrels per day.

Why are the Sandhills So Important?

The sandhills stretch across 19,600 square miles of central and northern Nebraska. The grass-covered sand dunes are “still pretty much wild prairie, which is really hard to find in this country,” said Mike George, Nebraska field supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The environment is unique, he said, because the Ogallala aquifer lies close to the surface in the sandhills, and water bubbles up to form wetlands that provide an important habitat for nesting waterfowl. “You have a prairie in the desert [with] a lot of wetland oases—that makes it even more beneficial to wildlife.”

The Ogallala aquifer is important in its own right. It covers an area of the High Plains larger than the state of California and provides 78 percent of the water used by Nebraskans as well as 83 percent of the state’s irrigation water. (See Keystone XL Primer: How the Pipeline’s Route Could Impact the Ogallala Aquifer for more information.)

Nebraska state senator Colby Coash grew up in the sandhills. As a child he used to collect remnants from the wagon trains that passed through over 100 years ago. On a recent trip to his family home, Coash found some broken dishes and a metal milk jug that he donated to a local museum. “It is a fragile piece of the earth,” he said. “There are places in the sandhills where you can still see wagon rust from when the settlers came through.”

Coash supports construction of the Keystone XL, but thinks TransCanada should reroute it away from the sandhills. In May he and four other Nebraska state senators wrote to the State Department asking for a more thorough environmental review and an analysis of alternative routes. “It’s not the pipeline I’m opposed to, it’s the route,” Coash said. “This is [about] resource protection.”

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman recently urged President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to deny the pipeline permit, citing concerns about its impact on the aquifer. Two scientists from the University of Nebraska have warned policymakers that researchers know little about the impacts of aquifer contamination. Last Friday, state senator Ken Haar helped form a coalition to campaign for a route that avoids the sandhills.

What About Other Pipelines in the Sandhills?

Nebraska’s entire sandhills region has 1,214 miles of natural gas pipelines and just 127 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. Thirteen counties in Nebraska have no pipelines at all, including nine counties in the sandhills.

George, the Fish & Wildlife supervisor, thinks pipelines are relatively rare in the sandhills because the area is so sparsely populated that fewer pipelines are needed. (Nearly 80 percent of Nebraska’s gas pipelines are intrastate distribution and transmission lines that serve local energy needs.) It also costs more to dig in the sandy soils, he said, so pipeline companies may avoid the region on purpose.

Who Regulates Nebraska’s Pipelines?

Nebraska’s intrastate natural gas pipelines are regulated by the state Fire Marshal’s Division of Pipeline Safety.

Nebraska doesn’t have a state agency to regulate oil pipelines. It leaves that job to PHMSA, which is part of the federal Department of Transportation.

PHMSA handles safety inspections and approves permits for new oil pipelines as well as natural gas lines that cross Nebraska’s state borders. The agency also receives reports of oil and gas spills. Officials from U.S. Fish & Wildlife, PHMSA and the Fire Marshal’s office all say that, as far as they know, there has never been a significant oil spill in the sandhills or in Nebraska’s portion of the Ogallala aquifer.

Because the Keystone XL would cross an international border, TransCanada needs a presidential permit to start construction in the United States. The State Department, which is in charge of the permitting process, released its final EIS last week and found that “there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed [pipeline]” if TransCanada follows existing regulations.

The public and other federal agencies such as the EPA have 90 days to comment on the environmental impact statement. Secretary Hillary Clinton will then decide whether to approve the pipeline. After she makes her decision, federal agencies will have 15 days to appeal to President Obama if they choose.

What’s the Track Record for TransCanada’s First Keystone Pipeline?

The existing Keystone has leaked more than a dozen times since it came online in June 2010. According to TransCanada’s Terry Cunha, there were 14 spills in the U.S. and two in Canada of more than five gallons each, including one on May 7 that released over 20,000 gallons at a pump station in North Dakota.

That spill, along with another incident later in May, prompted PHMSA to issue a corrective action order that temporarily shut down the Keystone on June 3. TransCanada was told it had to meet 14 safety conditions, and the company was allowed to re-start the pipeline on June 5 after complying with three of those standards. A PHMSA spokesman said TransCanada is working on the remaining actions.

What’s Being Done to Reduce the Risk of Spills Along the Keystone XL?

In early August, TransCanada said the Keystone XL would follow a list of 57 safety conditions set by the State Department. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that the conditions go “above and beyond” what’s required by law. The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said most of the conditions repeat the minimum standards set by PHMSA and other pipeline regulators.

Anthony Swift, an NRDC energy analyst, said it’s tough to detect leaks from large pipelines like the Keystone XL. Safety systems work by identifying the percentage of oil that doesn’t make it from point A to point B along a pipeline—so larger pipelines can create more serious spills. The Keystone XL can transport up to 830,000 barrels a day; by comparison, the pipeline that leaked 840,000 gallons (the equivalent of 20,000 barrels) into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in July 2010 has a capacity of just 190,000 barrels a day. That pipeline is owned by Enbridge, another Canadian company based in Alberta.

According to the State Department’s final EIS, the Keystone XL’s leak detection system will be able to detect spills down to 1.5-2.0 percent of the pipeline’s total flow rate; auxiliary system components could help pinpoint even smaller leaks. Assuming a 830,000 barrels-per-day capacity, the 1.5-2.0 percent comes out to a volume of 520,000-700,000 gallons.

Cunha told SolveClimate News that the leak detection system on the current Keystone has “the ability to detect very small volumes”—much less than the 1.5-2.0 percent listed in the EIS. With the exception of the May incident that released more than 20,000 gallons, he said the other spills along the Keystone average out to about 10 gallons per spill.

Those figures conflict with the figures in the State Department’s EIS. According to that document, only 7 of the 13 spills were 10 gallons or less, four were between 10-100 gallons each, and two more spills released 400 to 500 gallons. Using those numbers, the average would be more than 60 gallons per spill.

When asked about the discrepancy, Cunha sent an email saying that “after reviewing the numbers that were provided in the [EIS], the median is 10 gallons.”

“Our leak detection system enables discovery of leaks within tight time thresholds that minimizes the amount released…[and] our system is regularly tested to confirm its accuracy,” Cunha wrote. He emphasized that TransCanada will apply the lessons learned from operating the first Keystone pipeline to the Keystone XL.

Are There Other Concerns About the Keystone XL?

Like the existing Keystone pipeline, Keystone XL will transport diluted bitumen—an extra thick grade of crude oil.

There’s little research available about diluted bitumen.

A report from February by the NRDC, Pipeline Safety Trust, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Foundation says diluted bitumen is more acidic and corrosive than conventional crude. It requires operators to run the pipeline at higher pressures, Swift said, leading to more friction inside the pipeline and creating extra heat that can further decrease pipeline safety.

TransCanada’s Cunha says the physical and chemical properties of the crude oils transported by the Keystone system “are similar to those already being transported and processed by other pipelines and refineries across the United States…Other [diluted bitumen] heavy crudes have been transported safely by pipeline from Alberta to the United States for decades under existing regulations.”

In June, PHMSA director Cynthia Quarterman testified before Congress to report that her agency has not studied tar sands oil, and that current policies are not designed to specifically regulate diluted bitumen.

Why Not Reroute the Pipeline Around the Sandhills?

Cunha said the current route through the sandhills “is the shortest route, which means the least environmental impact and the fewest landowners impacted.”

The State Department’s final EIS lists five alternate routes that were eliminated due to technical or financial reasons. But it also says “Individual states have the legal authority to approve petroleum pipeline construction in their states, including selecting the routes for such pipelines.”

That statement clarifies some of the confusion regarding states’ rights. “This is official now,” said state senator Ken Haar. “We have the authority to do pipeline routing if we choose.”

Haar announced the establishment of the Save Our Sandhills coalition last Friday, a few hours after the State Department released the EIS. Members of the coalition include Bold Nebraska, the Nebraska Farmers Union and the Nature Conservancy. The coalition members disagree on whether or not the United States needs tar sands oil, Haar said, “but every group agrees we should reroute the pipeline.”

The coalition is pushing for a special session of the state legislature where Haar would introduce a bill prompting the state to propose alternative routes. Haar says a special session is necessary because the state senate’s regular session won’t start until January, and by then it might be too late to force a different route.

The final decision on the pipeline is expected by the end of the year, and Haar believes it will be approved. “And at that moment Keystone will start building their pipeline through the sandhills,” Haar said. “We can’t stop [the construction] once it’s started…so we have to beat that.”