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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

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Jun 15, 2011

“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,” , 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 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.”

Attachment Size
Gates and Woldt Letter on Keystone SDEIS.pdf 32.21 KB

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