The TransCanada company wants to install a large-diameter, high-pressure crude oil pipeline called “The XL” through 110 miles of the eight-state High Plains Aquifer, the most valuable portion of which sits under Nebraska’s Sandhills.
BY JULIE MEYERS, COURTESY OF PRAIRIE FIRE Scientists now know that ground and surface water should be treated as a single hydrological system, because that's how they behave in nature. Since 1996, Nebraska has changed its law twice to finally recognize this profound connection of surface water and to bring coherency to its water law. But recently, apparently fearful of being viewed by the oil industry as “obstructionist,” Nebraska’s Legislature has suddenly developed amnesia and decided to leave the protection of Nebraska’s most abundant natural resource — its water — to the federal government. Three oil pipeline bills with growing public support were killed in the Natural Resources Committee before advancing to the floor for debate in the Nebraska Legislature. Nebraska’s unique situation Nebraska possesses the most valuable portion of the eight-state High Plains Aquifer — by far the deepest, cleanest and largest share, a nearly unbelievable two-thirds of the whole. Above most of this water is a sea of sandy soils, the Sandhills, where the water table often outcrops into wetlands and rivers, or is not far below the surface. The TransCanada company wants to install a large-diameter, high-pressure crude oil pipeline — the XL — through 110 miles of this sensitive, water-rich area, where (because of the soils’ porosity and the close proximity of the water table) both ground and surface water are particularly vulnerable to widespread, rather than localized, contamination. It is also an area easily harmed by “clean-up” activities, where “natural remediation” of toxins over the course of many decades might actually be the best of the all-bad solutions. “It is known that surface waters in the Sandhills region, including rivers, wetlands and lakes, are extensively fed by groundwater. According to previous research, the time scale of flow from shallow groundwater to surface water can be very short in the Sandhills. Under these conditions, an oil release to groundwater that is near to a surface water body would be difficult to remediate before it is transmitted to surface water,” said John Gates, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in a recent hearing before the Natural Resources Committee. In other words, this groundwater can move fast and is sometimes indistinguishable from surface water. Surface water includes streams and rivers, which we all know can move along at a good clip. The State Department’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) confirms, “…there is the possibility of a crude oil release occurring with the potential to affect surface water bodies. A large spill could affect drinking water sources and irrigation water supplies.” The document warns that spills of crude oil may reduce or eliminate agricultural or domestic use of the groundwater and may contaminate surface water bodies if the contaminated groundwater discharges into these waters. There is no shortage of surface water along the proposed XL route, which crosses 160 Nebraska water bodies and five major rivers, including the Platte, the Loup and the Niobrara. A UNL research hydrogeologist estimated that this groundwater makes up 50 to 90 percent of the flow of these rivers. It is also far from clear that a large spill in the Sandhills would not impact Lincoln and Omaha. “The Sandhills aquifer serves as the chief water supply for the state’s two major cities and for much of heavily populated eastern Nebraska. Sandhills groundwater creates the Loup River system, and this system supplies most of the water in the Platte east of Columbus. Both Lincoln and Omaha metropolitan area get drinking water from wells along the Platte. That makes Sand Hills policy a statewide concern,” wrote L. Kent Wolgamott in Future Control of Water Resources. Selling pipeline safety Nebraskans depend on clean water for agriculture, industry (including tourism) and human consumption. But TransCanada has mounted an extensive campaign to persuade Nebraskans that each year the Keystone XL could safely pipe more than 7.5 billion gallons of corrosive and toxic liquid along a route selected mainly for its straightness — and continue to do this for the lifetime of the project — without serious incident. TransCanada points to the almost 21,000 miles of pipelines in Nebraska, implying that the proposed XL is just more of the same. But there are actually only 435 miles of crude oil pipelines in Nebraska, not 21,000. The rest are natural gas pipelines, mostly smaller distribution pipes, or other pipelines that do not carry crude oil. Most importantly, almost all these pipelines have previously avoided the Sandhills, including TransCanada’s just-built Keystone One. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), nine of the 14 counties that lie in the path of the XL (Keya Paha, Rock, Holt, Garfield, Wheeler, Greeley, Boone, Nance and Merrick) have no hazardous liquid pipelines. These counties are all located north of the Platte River — in the Sandhills. Two other counties, Saline and Jefferson, have hosted TransCanada’s Keystone One pipeline, while three others, Hamilton, York and Fillmore, have a combined total of 252 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. But all five counties lie generally south and east of the Platte River, outside of the Sandhills. In fact, as one compares the entire Sandhills region with the PHMSA chart showing counties with hazardous liquid pipelines, most of it is completely protected from spills by an absence of anything that could leak. Weak federal oversight Crude oil is a hazardous substance containing, among other toxic chemicals, known carcinogens like benzene, according to the State Department. The PHMSA does regulate pipeline safety. Unfortunately, the safety page of its website admits that the agency has a “limited number of inspectors” in the field to regulate more than 2 million miles of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines. For much of its history, it has worked within the constraints of “minimal design, operational and maintenance practices.” The leak and spill data for the nation’s onshore hazardous liquid pipelines, of which crude oil is a subset, show 108 significant incidents just last year — with more than 7 million gallons spilled, more than 5 million gallons lost and $682 million in property damage, according to the agency. Nebraska has been largely spared, mainly due to its small number of hazardous liquid pipelines. But in the past 10 years, it has endured eight hazardous liquid incidents, spilling more than 165,000 gallons (3,946 barrels), losing more than 119,000 gallons (2,840 barrels) and causing $2,641,107 in property damage. Considering the industry’s spill and leak record, rerouting the pipe away from the Sandhills’ water is a preventative, low-cost solution to the greatest dangers posed by the project. The growing problem with diluted bitumen Another serious and growing pipeline problem — currently unaddressed by federal regulation — is the pumping of diluted bitumen (Dilbit) through pipelines designed for conventional crude. “Without much public knowledge or a change in safety standards, U.S. pipelines are carrying increasing amounts of the corrosive raw form of tar sands oil (Dilbit) … Transporting Dilbit is also the primary purpose of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline,” according to a February 2011 joint report by pipeline opponents the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Pipeline Safety Trust and the Sierra Club. “In the past, the vast majority of tar sands bitumen was upgraded in Canada before coming into the United States as synthetic crude oil. However, more often now, bitumen is diluted and piped to U.S. refineries … Bitumen is not the same as conventional oil — it has characteristics that make it potentially more dangerous. Nonetheless, the safety and spill response standards used by the U.S. to regulate pipeline transport of bitumen are the same as those designed for conventional crude oil,” the report says. Compared to conventional crude, Dilbit contains: • 15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations; • Five to 10 times as much sulfur; • A high concentration of chloride salts, which can lead to chloride stress corrosion in high-temperature pipelines, and; • Higher quantities of abrasive quartz sand particles. “This combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration. Despite these significant differences, PHMSA does not distinguish between conventional crude and Dilbit when setting minimum standards for oil pipelines,” according to the joint report. In Canada’s Alberta pipeline system, where Dilbit has been pumped for years, there is an astounding 16 times as many spills from internal corrosion as in the U.S., which has just started pumping Dilbit. This finding was unexpected because, in general, the pipeline system in the United States is older than Alberta’s. The 800,000-gallon Enbridge spill, which traveled 30 miles toward Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago’s drinking water, may be the canary in the figurative coal mine for Dilbit. The PHMSA record shows a large number of uncorrected corrosion problems identified in the Enbridge line. In 2010, the pipe ruptured and the tar sands oil pumped for hours over land, through wetlands, into a nearby stream and then into miles of the Kalamazoo River. Michigan’s air, water and land have been severely affected by both the spill and the ongoing clean up, now in its eighth month, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Computer technology and human error The XL would rely heavily on a remote computer system to detect leaks in its high-volume pressurized line. TransCanada has made much of the protection that Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) offers in terms of quick detection and shut off. This claim is extremely questionable and should be reexamined to determine if additional design, operation and maintenance features should be required. Computer systems have their own set of challenges and limits, and may fail. But more importantly, because computer-generated data must be interpreted, human error is a factor. In the Michigan spill, the Enbridge computers automatically sounded numerous alarms after pressure drops, but human operators apparently attributed the alarms to a “bubble” impeding the flow of oil; they restarted the pipeline multiple times, so that the line operated under pressure for at least two hours after the first alarm, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. There is evidence that the instability of the Dilbit mixture may cause a greater number of false alarms. This means that when a leak is detected, the data can be interpreted as a “column separation,” or bubble, where the solution would be to apply more pressure — exactly the opposite of the shutdown response required by a leak, according to the board. It’s also clear that commercial forces may work against a shutdown, while the existence of a leak is explored. These include the mixing of batches — and loss of product through co-mingling — that starts whenever the flow is stopped, according to the Allegro Energy Group. The unfinished work of the Natural Resources Committee In an effort to get ahead of potential problems like these, state senators on the Natural Resources Committee introduced three hazardous liquid pipeline bills: LB340, on state-based guidelines and oversight, LB629, on clarity upon abandonment, and LB578, on financial responsibility. But all three failed to advance from committee. TransCanada calls the legislation duplicative. But the PHMSA website contradicts this notion, stating: “Federal regulatory approval is not ordinarily required for development of a new hazardous liquids [oil] pipeline, unless it will cross federal lands. Generally, state and local laws are the primary regulatory factors for construction of new hazardous liquid pipelines.” It further explains, “Individual states may have additional or more stringent pipeline safety regulations.” All locations are not equal If TransCanada can put a pipeline anywhere, as it claims, then it can move it off the Sandhills. Nebraska should demand that. The upcoming hearings for the State Department's Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement will offer Nebraskans a good opportunity to tell what they know about the Sandhills, its water, and to demand a safer route. Even with modern technology, crude oil pipelines leak. When they spill, they spill on average two to three times the volume of other types of hazardous liquid pipelines, according to the State Department. Therefore, the question of where they can be safely placed is of utmost concern. For Nebraska, there are at least three serious problems with the proposed XL project: 1. The route is a convenient “shortcut” across 110 miles of porous sandy soil and a wealth of vulnerable ground- and surface water, where a spill could be catastrophic. 2. The pipeline industry, in spite of federal regulation, has a long and varied history of leaks and spills, followed by incomplete “clean-up.” 3. The federal safety regulations fail to differentiate between conventional oil and the far more corrosive diluted bitumen (Dilbit). Perhaps the unearned nature of Nebraska’s water wealth is causing it to undervalue this asset — and to blindly accept claims of pipeline safety. TransCanada will continue to argue that the XL project risk is so infinitesimal that the location doesn’t matter. But that is simply sleight of hand — and that is the way Nebraskans may trade something of untold value for next to nothing. This story was produced by Prairie Fire and the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center. Read more at prairiefirenewspaper.com.