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Keystone XL, Clean Water and Democracy

Bravo for Nebraskans. In today’s economy, job creation trumps just about everything.  But for Nebraskans, at least one thing ranks higher – and that’s protecting their precious water sources.  They know, as we all should, that ample clean water is crucial for economic vitality now and for generations to come. Nebraska’s citizens and representatives rose...

Bravo for Nebraskans.

In today’s economy, job creation trumps just about everything.  But for Nebraskans, at least one thing ranks higher – and that’s protecting their precious water sources.  They know, as we all should, that ample clean water is crucial for economic vitality now and for generations to come.

Nebraska’s citizens and representatives rose up — along with many others across the country — and spoke out against the proposed route for Keystone XL, the $7 billion pipeline that would deliver half a million barrels of dirty crude laden with dangerous carcinogens from the Canadian tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and along the Gulf Coast.

(Related: Measure Your Own Water Footprint)

In a significant victory for the Cornhuskers’ state, Canadian pipeline developer TransCanada announced earlier this week that it would move the pipeline route away from the ecologically sensitive Sandhills.  That announcement came on the heels of the Obama Administration’s decision to delay final word on the pipeline in order to explore alternative routes, a delay spurred in no small part by pressure from Nebraskan officials.  The U.S. State Department expects the review to take at least a year.

As originally proposed, the 1,700-mile pipeline would have crossed Nebraska’s unique and precious Sandhills, a rare native-prairie ecosystem of wetlands, lakes and grass-covered hills that spans about one-fourth of the state.

The Sandhills are also a crucial recharge zone for the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water reserve that supplies drinking water to several million people in the Great Plains as well as 30 percent of all the groundwater used for irrigation nationwide.

The region’s sandy soils allow rainfall to seep rapidly in and replenish the groundwater supply below.  Those same sandy soils, however, could allow tar sands crude from a leaky pipeline to seep into the precious Ogallala.

So the decision to avoid the Sandhills in siting Keystone XL is good news, for sure.

But a declaration of victory for safe, clean water is highly premature.

Any new route for Keystone XL would inevitably cross hundreds of rivers, large and small, between the tar sands in Alberta and the U.S. Gulf Coast.  Among them would be the Missouri, the nation’s longest river, and almost certainly Nebraska’s Platte, which early settlers called the river that was a mile wide and an inch deep. The Platte is world-renowned as the most crucial stopover for more than half a million sandhill cranes on their annual great migration.

(See my blog on the sandhill cranes.)

I was thinking about Keystone XL and Nebraskan waters two weeks ago as I flew into Omaha, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Platte. I was to deliver the E. N. Thompson Forum lecture at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL), and I knew the pipeline, the Sandhills, the Ogallala and the state’s prized rivers would be on everyone’s mind.  The day of my lecture, November 1, the Nebraska legislature went into special session to consider a bill giving the state authority to review any major oil pipeline applications.

When I got home, I dug in a bit more.  One of the pieces of research that struck me most was an analysis of “worst-case” spills from Keystone XL by John S. Stansbury, a professor of water engineering at UNL.  It pertained to the original route, but the findings were chilling and should give pause for any tar sands pipeline route that crosses rivers and groundwater that provide drinking water to cities and towns, irrigation water to farms, and life-support for fish, birds and other aquatic creatures.

Stansbury found, for instance, that a major spill from the proposed Keystone XL where the pipeline crossed the Platte could discharge more than 5.9 million gallons of heavy, toxic, tar sands crude into the river.  The resulting plume of contamination would contain benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer, at levels up to ten times the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum limit for safe drinking water.

Photo: DC Keystone pipeline rally
Protestors demonstrate against the pipeline in Washington. Brian Clark Howard


While the benzene concentration would decrease as the plume spread out, Stansbury found that it would have to travel hundreds of miles downstream from the spill location before the water became safe to drink.  From the Platte, the plume could flow into the Missouri. Altogether, such a spill could threaten the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people as far south as Kansas City, Missouri.

The raw tar sands oil, called bitumen, would itself cause major problems if spilled into a river because it is denser than water and would sink down to the riverbed.  Bottom-dwelling fish, insects, mussels and plants would get smothered near the spill site.

TransCanada, the pipeline operator, appears to have low-balled the likelihood of spills.  It estimated that Keystone XL (the original route) would have 11 significant spills over fifty years, whereas Stansbury’s work suggests that 91 such spills during that time is more realistic. Significant here means at least 2,100 gallons, or 50 barrels, of crude.

For the Keystone I pipeline, which began production in June 2010, TransCanada had predicted one spill every seven years, but more than a dozen spills occurred during its first year.  To be sure, most were very small, less than 15 gallons. But on May 7, 2011, a valve failure at Brampton, North Dakota caused a spill of 21,000 gallons (500 barrels) of tar sands crude, and twenty-two days later another spill of 2,100 gallons (50 barrels) occurred in Bendena, Kansas.

And then of course there’s the 843,000 gallons of crude spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River when a pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy burst in July 2010.  Sixteen months later, the Kalamazoo clean-up continues – and will go on into 2012.

So the decision to skirt the Sandhills and critical portions of the precious Ogallala, while a significant start to protecting the waters and grasslands of the Great Plains, is not insurance against serious water contamination or harm to river ecosystems from Keystone XL.

When added together, the risks of U.S. river and groundwater contamination, the ongoing toxic pollution of Canada’s Athabasca River from tar sands operations, and the prospect of a near-doubling of greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s tar sands production by 2020, the upsides of the extra oil from Keystone XL pale in comparison to the downsides.

As we’ve learned, oil and water don’t mix.  Keystone XL is another reason – and a crucial one – to get serious about kicking our oil addiction.

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Meet the Author

Sandra Postel
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.