Nebraska’s economy is built on our crops and cattle. Our heritage is based in places like the Sandhills where homesteaders built communities. Much of the water we drink and use for crops and cattle comes from the Ogallala Aquifer. And yet, much of this is at risk because of what is happening in Alberta, Canada.
In far northern Alberta, on the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories, lies Wood Buffalo National Park. The park is a mix of boreal forests, the Caribou Mountains, bogs, streams, salt plains and wetlands. The park was set aside in 1922 to protect 1,500 wood buffalo, a smaller cousin of the larger plains buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains tens of millions strong.
Established to protect the last of the wood buffalo, it was not until 1954 that scientists discovered wetlands in the far northeast corner of the park that serve as the nesting grounds for the whooping crane, the largest bird in North America and one of the rarest. By 1941, uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction had reduced the number of whooping cranes in the wild to about 15 birds. The remoteness of their nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park helped the whooping cranes survive and reproduce.
Today, that tiny flock of wild whooping cranes is now 265 strong. They continue to nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, winging their way south through Nebraska every fall to spend the winter in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Just south—and upstream—from Wood Buffalo National Park is a region known as the Athabasca Oil Sands, the largest of three oil sand deposits in Alberta. There, under some 54,000 square miles of boreal forest and peat bogs (an area more than two-thirds the size of Nebraska), lies a mixture of sand, clay, water and crude bitumen.
These “tar sands” contain enough bitumen, a semi-solid form of crude oil, to rival the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. Oil companies began mining the tar sands in 1967, converting the bitumen into crude oil, but it was only in the last decade that oil prices climbed high enough to encourage substantial expansion of production.
The raw material is mined in huge open pits, crushed and added to hot water to separate the bitumen. One result of the process is the destruction of the boreal forest and peat bogs on the surface. The process also uses large amounts of water, some 2.5 to 4 gallons of water for each gallon of crude oil produced.
To move the tar sands oil to markets, TransCanada recently built the Keystone pipeline, which runs through the clay soils of eastern Nebraska. Now anticipating a huge increase in tar sands oil production, TransCanada has proposed to build a second pipeline, Keystone XL, along a different route that would take it through the Nebraska Sandhills, over and through the Ogallala Aquifer, across the Platte River and through the Rainwater Basin, linking up with the original Keystone pipeline at Steele City, Neb., southwest of Beatrice.
The proposed route of the pipeline has raised vocal concerns from conservation groups, area landowners, public officials and others.
Not a done deal
While some think the pipeline is a “done deal” or impossible to stop, the issue is far from decided. In July, the State Department closed its public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline. Indications are that over 100,000 people provided comments, with a large number opposing the pipeline.
The Environmental Protection Agency also weighed in, saying the State Department analysis was inadequate. The EPA said the State Department needs to look more closely at air pollution impacts, the risk of contaminating water supplies, environmental justice and other issues, and the EPA suggested State revise its analysis and open it back up for public comment. The State Department must now review the comments and decide whether to adjust its Environmental Impact Statement.
Should the proposal pass the environmental review, it must meet a second, very critical test: whether the project is in the national interest of the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will make that determination, based on a long list of factors that will include U.S. energy policy goals, climate change agreements, energy security, trade relations, environmental laws and environmental impact.
Public officials like U.S. Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) have raised concerns, as has Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). A letter from nearly 50 U.S. House members raised concerns about the Keystone XL, although none were from Nebraska. Powerful Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has also said he opposes the pipeline.
In April, several oil companies who were to receive the oil reportedly sued TransCanada to get out of their contracts, saying the delivered cost of the oil would be too high.
Groups opposing the pipeline in Nebraska are asking state officials, including Gov. Dave Heineman, to release the Emergency Response Plan for the current and proposed pipelines and to create a trust, funded by TransCanada, to help protect families when a spill happens.
All of this demonstrates the proposed pipeline is far from a done deal.
More than 110 miles of the pipeline would run through the Nebraska Sandhills, a region of wind-blown sand dunes stabilized by a fragile cap of native mixed-grass prairie. The soil is porous, and a small disturbance of the vegetation can lead to a large blowout in a matter of days. The Sandhills ecosystem is one of the most fragile in North America.
That fragile ecosystem would be disturbed by the work to install the pipeline. In a landscape where the scars from ill-considered irrigation pivots can still be seen decades after they were abandoned, guarantees that the disturbed land will be restored ring hollow. Burying the pipeline five or six feet deep in a Sandhills dune may sound safe, but a large blowout can readily move that much soil and more in a short time.
Landowners made it clear that the native grass disturbed by the first pipeline has yet to grow back properly as promised by TransCanada.
The water table in the Sandhills is often close enough to the surface that you can hit it with a shovel digging holes for fence posts. The Sandhills sit atop the deepest portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the treasure trove of groundwater that supplies Nebraska communities, industries and agriculture with water. TransCanada says over 100 miles of the pipeline’s route in Nebraska is over land where the groundwater is less than 50 feet from the surface, not counting the many floodplains and rivers along the route.
When the pipeline leaks or breaks in the segments where aquifers are close to the surface, the result will be contamination of a portion of the aquifer. Given the difficulty of cleaning up groundwater, the best-case response could be simply containing the spill and monitoring the resulting plume. While TransCanada tries to say spills only happen every seven thousand years, that also rings hollow with recent spills in Utah and Minnesota.
The pipeline would also cross under the Niobrara, Loup and Platte rivers. Should oil leak from the pipeline into one of those rivers, the result downstream would be a calamity.
At least 10 Rainwater Basin “wetlands of special concern or value” would be crossed by the project, in addition to 37 “wetlands of special concern or value” in the Sandhills that are impacted by the project. TransCanada says they will rely largely on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and equivalent state wetland permit programs to protect wetlands, under the theory that those permits will accord an appropriate level of protection for wetlands. Unfortunately, the State of Nebraska does not have a wetland-permitting program, and the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission has estimated that some two-thirds of Nebraska’s wetlands now fall outside the jurisdiction of the Corps of Engineers.
Instead, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) attempts to protect wetlands from degradation through a consultation process whereby landowners or project sponsors can ask for a consultation on suggested mitigation for wetland impacts. The consultation is voluntary, and following the mitigation recommendations is voluntary, although the landowner risks a fine or penalty if they fill or degrade a wetland without going through the consultation process and following the recommendations. The department has few resources committed to the program, giving little assurance that the mitigation will be adequate.
The Nebraska Game & Parks Commission says that less than 10 percent of the historic Rainwater Basin wetlands have survived the draining and filling of the last century, so each remaining wetland is extremely important. The Rainwater Basin wetlands are considered “endangered” by the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified them as one of nine areas in the U.S. of critical concern for wetland loss.
Risks to whooping cranes and other migratory birds
Even where the land and water impacts are limited to Canada, there are impacts on migratory birds that travel between Alberta and the United States, including Nebraska.
The open-pit mining associated with tar sands production turns this valuable ancient forest into a wasteland, destroying forests and polluting waters. Although the companies involved assert that the land is reclaimed after mining, the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society says there has not yet been any mine fully reclaimed. Forest, peat lands and wetlands ecosystems are highly complex, and it is unlikely they will regenerate in areas filled with mine waste.
The tar sands region is rich in wetlands in the form of bogs, fens, shallow ponds, shoreline marshes and river delta systems. Mining operations require dredging wetlands and taking large amounts of water from the rivers. Changes to Alberta’s rivers and underground reservoirs could have profound impacts on areas like Wood Buffalo National Park downstream and the hundreds of thousands of birds that are dependent on the wetland habitats in the tar sands region and watershed.
Nebraskans are only too keenly aware of the connections between surface water and groundwater.
Heavy water withdrawals needed to extract oil from the tar sands may eventually impact the hydrology of the area enough to reduce the water supply in the wetlands on which the whooping cranes depend.
In the U.S., migrating birds will face another set of obstacles. Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) plans to build three new 115,000-volt power transmission lines to provide electricity to pumping stations along the pipeline. All three appear to be within (or very near) the 100-mile-wide corridor that includes most of the confirmed sightings of whooping cranes migrating through Nebraska. This corridor also includes the heart of the Central Flyway used by many species of migratory birds.
Those power lines will be built with funds from NPPD electric ratepayers. The money is to be paid back by TransCanada, through the electric rates it will pay to run its pumps. If the pipeline carries as much fuel as TransCanada hopes it will, and if the pipeline and the company remain in place year after year, the money invested will eventually be paid back. Given the uncertainty of the oil market, NPPD ratepayers are being asked to shoulder some substantial risks on TransCanada’s behalf.
Risks to Nebraskans
Nebraska residents have little information about how TransCanada might respond in the event of a spill or leak in the pipeline. Do they have an emergency response plan? How long would it take to respond in the event of a leak or spill? What kind of leak detection system do they have in place? Do they have insurance or financial reserves to recover the costs of remediating the damage a spill would cause? What is their track record with regard to spills or leaks? What will happen if the pipeline is abandoned? These and numerous other questions have not been adequately answered.
As noted above, there is little regulatory oversight by the State of Nebraska over the pipeline process. Although representatives of TransCanada have downplayed the likelihood of a leak or spill and further downplayed the damage it might cause, the disaster in the Gulf has brought home to us the importance of proper oversight to prevent a possible environmental disaster. Rather than putting the Nebraska environment at risk as well as putting Nebraska taxpayers at risk for paying for the damage that a flawed project of this kind could cause, we need both answers to crucial questions and a proper regulatory framework to have oversight of projects like these.
What can be done?
Before it can be built, the pipeline must first pass environmental muster, Then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must decide whether it is in the national interest. On both counts, opponents make strong arguments that the project gets failing grades.
Nebraskans and others who are concerned about the potential impacts of the pipeline can still have their say by contacting their members of Congress and asking them to weigh in with the State Department. Concerned citizens can also send letters directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking her to turn down the pipeline.
Groups in Nebraska are collecting names on a petition that will be delivered to Secretary of State Clinton and Nebraska state and federal officials. Signing the petition will also ensure you stay up to date on the issue. You can sign the petition at http://tinyurl.com/protectnebraska.
In addition, you can encourage our federal representatives to establish clear regulatory authority over the pipeline, instead of the current mishmash of vague regulations. And although it is primarily a federal issue, our state and local officials can set up a framework to protect interests of Nebraskans that are not preempted by federal law. Please encourage our policy makers to take steps to protect our interests now, rather than waiting until it’s too late.