Nebraska Water Scientists Warn of Oil Pipeline’s Risk, Call for More Study

A single study by the U.S. Geological Survey in Minnesota is the sole source for what scientists know about crude oil behavior in aquifers

Satellite Image of the Sand Hills in Nebraska (NASA/Science Photo Library)

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WASHINGTON—Great Plains states are risking an unknown level of environmental and economic hurt if the U.S. State Department persists in routing a controversial tar sands pipeline atop the Ogallala Aquifer without further study.

That is the scientific warning coming from a pair of University of Nebraska professors with expertise in groundwater flow and contamination.

In a June 6 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (attached below), the two scientists laid out how their state’s fragile sandhills region is particularly vulnerable to crude oil pollution from a pipeline spill and why a research information gap needs to be closed.

Their concerns align with those expressed by Environmental Protection Agency authorities in their recent harsh critique of the State Department’s second attempt to draft an environmental review of the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline.

TransCanada’s 1,702-mile Keystone XL is slated to pump diluted bitumen from Alberta, Canada’s tar sands mines across Nebraska and five other states to Gulf Coast oil refineries via a 36-inch diameter underground pipeline.

“Uncertainty about crude oil plume behavior in waters of the Nebraska sandhills region has practical implications,” wrote John Gates, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Wayne Woldt, an associate professor in Biological Systems Engineering and the School of Natural Resources. “We feel that it is highly desirable to study contaminant risks in the sandhills in a more thorough and systematic way.”

Gates and Woldt urged the State Department to allow scientists and engineers to undertake a study using field data and numerical modeling to outline exactly how an oil spill would affect the sandhills and devise strategies to safeguard the region’s aquifer, streams, lakes and wetlands.

When asked how long such a study might take, Woldt told SolveClimate News in an interview, “If these were easy questions to answer I think they would have been answered already.”

Minnesota Study Not Enough

Woldt’s and Gates’s two-page letter was among 100,000-plus comments sent in response to the State Department’s mid-April release of its “supplemental draft environmental impact statement” of Keystone XL, department spokesman Harry Edwards said in an interview. That comment period closed June 6.

In separate interviews, both Nebraska professors agreed that the State Department was correct in citing a single study by the U.S. Geological Survey in Minnesota as the sole source for what scientists know about crude oil behavior in aquifers. More than 30 years later, scientists are still learning from that 1979 spill that occurred northwest of Bemidji.

But Gates stressed that comparing probable rates of contaminant spreading and degradation in two such vastly different geographies is a classic apples- to-oranges exercise.

“The analogies between the sandhills and the Bemidji area break down in a lot of ways,” Gates said.

What Makes the Sandhills Unique

Alberta-based TransCanada has proposed routing 92 miles of pipeline through Nebraska’s sandhills. Unique conditions that make the region susceptible to oil contamination include very permeable sandy soils, groundwater hovering near the surface and a network of abundant groundwater-fed lakes and marshes.

“Hydrologic studies in the sandhills have already shown that all of the conditions are right for producing very short lag times between a pipeline crude oil release and water contamination,” Gates and Woldt wrote in their letter. “Because lakes and streams in the sandhills are fed almost exclusively by groundwater, risks are not limited to the aquifer, but extend to surface water as well.”

The two scientists complimented the State Department for making it clear that in Nebraska, 64 percent of the groundwater wells are within one mile of the Keystone XL route. That figure drops to just 10 percent in each of the other states—Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Gates and Woldt say their research indicates that a similarly high percentage of Nebraska’s wetlands are along the proposed pipeline route.

“Groundwater is a pretty mysterious thing for most people because you can’t see it,” Gates said, referring to water hidden below visible lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. “But the groundwater contaminant potential in Nebraska’s sandhills is head and shoulders above all others.”

“People don’t understand the connection in the sandhills,” he continued. “All of those wetlands and rivers are supported by groundwater. The interaction between the two is vast and copious. They are intimately connected.”

In the Cornhusker State, the treasured dunes and lakes of the sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer are inseverably intertwined. For instance, the wetness of the sandhills region makes it the most productive recharge zone for the aquifer.

Nationwide, the massive but shallow aquifer covers roughly 174,000 square miles of the Great Plains in eight states stretching from South Dakota to New Mexico.

The Ogallala is credited with supplying 78 percent of the water supply and 83 percent of the water for irrigation in Nebraska. Cereal crops and cattle that count on “irrigated agriculture” contribute $3.5 billion annually to the state’s coffers.

“Agriculture and the agriculture business sector are about one-third of Nebraska’s economy,” Gates said. “Water is the resource that underpins all of that.”

State Department Sorts Pro and Con Comments

Anti-pipeline advocates are elated that scientists such as Gates and Woldt rang in with Clinton but wonder if their insights will force the State Department to budge from failing to explore an alternate route for Keystone XL.

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, the State Department team is tasked with reviewing TransCanada’s request for a so-called presidential permit required to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. Clinton is expected to issue a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before December. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

Comments on the State Department’s revamped environmental evaluation, which are supposed to serve as fodder for Clinton’s team as members craft a final environmental impact statement, came from an assortment of contributors.

For instance, an amalgam of faith-based organizations asked Clinton to deny TransCanada’s permit because of the pipeline’s potential harm to air quality, water supplies and the health of Texans living near petroleum refineries.

“As a people of faith, we are in awe of Earth’s goodness and its ability to provide life for all of God’s creation,” stated the letter signed by 47 groups, most of which are affiliated with Catholic religious communities. “As a people, society, and government we need to respect the intrinsic value of creation, and thus, the environment as well.”

“Once extracted and burned, tar sands oil produces high levels of sulfur oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide,” the letter continued. “The refinery sites of Houston and Port Arthur, (Texas) are already failing the Clean Air Act standards; adding more sulfur, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide to the air will only compound the already existing poor conditions and have adverse affects on the people in these cities, as well as the surrounding areas.”

On the other side of the coin, the Consumer Energy Alliance delivered more than 62,000 public comments in favor of the project from residents of the half-dozen states along Keystone XL’s proposed route.

“Approving the Keystone XL pipeline is one of the most important actions the Administration can take to address high gasoline and diesel prices and to ensure stable energy supplies for years to come,” Michael Whatley, alliance executive vice president said via a June 8 news release. “But since the project was first announced in 2008, approval for Keystone XL has unfortunately undergone repeated delays. American consumers neither want nor deserve any additional delays, and now is the time to approve this project that is so vital to North American energy security.”

The Houston-based alliance bills itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with 160-plus affiliates that include energy consumers and producers and tens of thousands of consumer advocates. Media watchdogs label it an oil industry front group.

Call for More Hearings

Advocates such as Ken Winston, policy director with the Nebraska Sierra Club, have joined forces with legislators and green groups to try to force the State Department to extend its comment period on the second draft of its environmental impact statement.

Ideally, they want Clinton to organize several public hearings in each affected state along the 1,375-mile mapped out U.S. portion of the pipeline. They are not at all satisfied with the State Department’s plans to schedule public meetings in Washington, D.C. and all states but Kansas within 30 days after it issues a final environmental review of the pipeline.

“I think it’s going to be kind of a free-for-all,” Winston said. “I don’t know how you comment on something after it has already been put in place. It’s as if they already built a road through your front yard and now you can say whether you like it or not.”

The State Department’s meeting announcement last week comes on the heels of the Department of Transportation’s decision to temporarily shut down a similarly named tar sands pipeline that TransCanada began operating a year ago. That two-years-in-the making pipeline, called simply Keystone, has experienced a dozen spills in 12 months. It carries heavy crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to its southern terminus in Cushing, Okla., and its eastern terminus in Patoka, Ill.

Back on June 3, federal regulators with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued TransCanada with what’s called a corrective action order after determining that Keystone was “an imminent threat to life, property and the environment.” The pipeline was allowed to begin operating under restricted conditions two days later after the Canadian oil pipeline giant agreed to meet at least 14 requirements related to safety and staffing.

Environmental organizations have long expressed concern about PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman’s connections to the industry. President Obama nominated her to the position in September 2009.

Before leading PHMSA, Quarterman provided legal counsel for Enbridge Energy Partners as a partner with the Washington office of the large and influential law firm Steptoe and Johnson. Prior to that, from 1995 to 1999 she served as director of the much-maligned Mineral Management Service, a section of the Interior Department ordered to reinvent itself after the April 2010 BP oil spill.

Leaks Undetectable for Weeks?

Over at the advocacy organization Natural Resources Defense Council, oil infrastructure analyst Anthony Swift is nervous about the real-time leak detection system TransCanada has slated for Keystone XL. Why? His research shows that those sensors can neither detect pinhole-size leaks nor alert authorities about spills smaller than 700,000 gallons per day.

Swift pointed to a situation where up to 63,000 gallons of oil seeped from a tiny opening about the size of a pinhole on the Norman Wells pipeline operated by Canada-based Enbridge Energy Partners in the Northwest Territories.

At first, Enbridge officials estimated the size of the leak to be much smaller when they learned about it May 9. Upon closer examination, however, they couldn’t determine exactly when or how the leak began.

“An undiscovered three-week spill could contaminate a large … chunk of the Ogallala Aquifer half a mile long,” Swift said. “Responders will not be able to simply remove the contaminated soil. They will have to pump contaminated water out, which will draw more water into the area of contamination. In short, a Keystone XL tar sands spill in the Ogallala Aquifer would be a disaster.”

“TransCanada employees will not walk the pipeline route to identify these types of spills,” Swift continued. “The company will not send people to do ground patrols unless they already know there’s a spill. TransCanada will have (an) aerial flyover once every three weeks, just like the Enbridge flyovers that missed the Norman Wells pipeline leak. The last line of defense will be landowners and nearby residents.”

A TransCanada spokesman, however, labeled Swift’s claims as “completely false.”

Terry Cunha emphasized that the company’s Keystone pipeline is already monitored 24/7 by operators trained to respond to abnormalities. Satellite technology sends information collected from 16,000 data points to a monitoring center every five seconds.

“If a drop in pressure is detected, we can isolate any section of our pipeline by remotely closing any of the hundreds of valves on the system within minutes,” Cunha said in an e-mail. “In each of the incidents we’ve had on the system, our leak detection system identified the issue immediately.”

The amount of oil released in each Keystone spill averaged out to five gallons, he said, comparing it to the same amount used for three oil changes in a pickup truck.

Seeking the Right Balance

For Woldt, his career as an engineer who studies natural systems is about finding a balance between development and the environment. He is convinced both can be achieved if thoughtful people exercise deliberation, understanding and place-based sensitivity.

“That balance of development and environment is what allows us as a society to move forward and realize that we still have to live here,” Woldt said.

He noted that he and Gates wouldn’t have bothered to write their letter to Clinton if they thought the State Department had done its Nebraska homework on that front. With so much research lacking, they both wonder why a rush to construction is necessary.

Woldt then suggested that spending time exploring a unique landscape such as Nebraska’s sandhills is an eye-opener or anybody seeking his bearings or some perspective.

“It’s is an interesting study in and of itself,” he concluded. “If you ever want to feel really small, go out in the sandhills and watch a big huge thunderstorm roll in. That brings about a sense of place and scale of where you are in the universe.”