WASHINGTON—Concern that a proposed oil pipeline could irreversibly damage his home state's aquifer and most fragile landscape has prompted Nebraska's junior senator to ask the U.S. State Department to pursue an alternate, more easterly, route.
Republican Sen. Mike Johanns is urging officials to reroute the Keystone XL pipeline north from Steele City, Neb., to the U.S./Canada border in North Dakota instead of Montana.
Such a solution, he says, would keep TransCanada's pipeline out of Nebraska's sandhills and away from the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 78 percent of the water supply and 83 percent of the water for irrigation in the Cornhusker State.
"This route would be far shorter than the proposed route, and shorter than every alternative considered in the draft environmental impact statement," Johanns wrote in a two-page Oct. 14 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "And if, as the draft EIS has argued, shorter distance generally coincides with a less severe environmental impact, then one could conclude that such a route would be better for the environment."
A coalition of environmental organizations has joined forces with ranchers and landowners to organize a months-long campaign to halt or reroute Keystone XL. (SolveClimate News has documented their efforts in a series of articles accessible here.)
Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, the U.S. State Department is in charge of giving the thumbs up or down to Calgary-based TransCanada's request for a presidential permit to build and operate a 1,702-mile pipeline to carry heavy crude oil from tar sands mines in the province of Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. A decision isn't expected until sometime next year.
TransCanada has already received approval for the Canadian portion of Keystone XL. The proposed 1,375-mile U.S. section starts in Montana and stretches through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
As it stands now, almost 300 miles of that pipeline is destined to cross private land in 14 Nebraska counties. TransCanada has approached about 470 property owners along the route about signing deals for easements.
The senator's suggested alternate route would position Keystone XL parallel to a separate TransCanada oil pipeline—confusingly called the Keystone— in eastern Nebraska where the soil is clay-based, not sandy. Keystone, a two-year project completed in June, is already carrying heavy crude oil from Alberta's tar sands. Steele City is in far southern Nebraska, near the Kansas border.
Two Other Key Points
Johanns made two other key points in his letter to Clinton. One, he inquires why the draft EIS ignores the possibility of border crossings other than those at or near Morgan, Montana. And, two, he asks that the scope of the draft EIS be expanded to include the potential environmental benefits of avoiding the sandhills region of Nebraska.
On the border crossing issue, he writes, "I am not aware of any language in the Presidential Order establishing the Department of State as the lead agency for this permit application that would preclude consideration of an alternative border crossing that might allow for a shorter route."
Johanns is proposing a border crossing in Cavalier County, N.D., which is south of the Canadian province of Manitoba. The province of Saskatchewan is between Alberta and Manitoba, meaning TransCanada would have to route more of the pipeline east through Canadian land.
About skirting the sandhills, he writes, "Two of the alternatives considered (in the draft EIS) do not substantially cross the sandhills. This is noteworthy because this region contains soils that are dramatically different from those in other regions of Nebraska. The document acknowledges, for example, that crude oil adheres differently to sandy soils and may penetrate them faster than it would other soil types."
Johanns is a first-term senator who is not up for re-election this year. Thus far, he has emerged as the Cornhusker State's more outspoken incumbent politician on the Keystone XL issue.
Back in August, he intervened on behalf of landowners when TransCanada issued letters to them threatening to use eminent domain to obtain easements for pipeline construction. TransCanada authorities responded by telling Johanns the company would refrain from using eminent domain as a way to advance pipeline right of way negotiations.
During a congressional hearing, Johanns asked a series of questions about whether the appropriate federal pipeline experts were involved in safety reviews of Keystone XL. In addition, he sent separate letters to the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget to find out if the correct agencies and experts were involved in the federal permit review.
"All three agencies provided assurances that they believed the appropriate experts have been engaged in the review process," Johanns writes on his Web site. "Yet, OMB openly acknowledged that a formal interagency review process, coordinated by OMB, had not been conducted, due to the fact that the Department of State is charged with leading this review."
Johanns makes it clear that he is not opposed to oil pipelines in Nebraska, a state already crisscrossed by several such structures.
"It is in our national interest to obtain oil from allies instead of those who may not share our values," he writes about importing oil from Canada instead of the Middle East.
"The appropriate construction and use of oil pipelines can directly meet this national interest," his statement continues. "The Ogallala Aquifer is our state's most treasured resource and we have an obligation to ensure it is protected to the best of our ability."
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