Pipeline's Safety Far From Guaranteed

Dr. Mace Hack is the state director for the Nebraska program.  This column first appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on July 20, 2011.

Omaha, NE | July 20, 2011

The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska focuses primarily on managing lands and waters for the benefit of nature and people. Rarely do we enter into public policy debates.

Nevertheless, compelled by the gravity of scientific concerns, our statewide Board of Trustees voted recently to oppose the routing of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska's Sand Hills.

Pipelines may well be the most efficient and safest conduits to move oil. With no guarantee that a pipeline won't rupture, however, we must assume that oil will be spilled. Recent pipeline failures on Montana's Yellowstone River and Michigan's Kalamazoo River remind us that pipelines do leak with serious consequences for people and nature.

TransCanada's Mainline Pipeline started operation just one year ago and already has had 12 "releases" at its pumping stations — the most recent in North Dakota spilled 21,000 gallons of oil. The U.S. State Department openly recognizes that Trans- Canada — being primarily a natural gas company — has a very limited history of operating crude oil pipelines.

The Keystone XL presents Nebraskans with similar risks. It would be the first oil pipeline to cross the Niobrara, Cedar and Loup Rivers in Nebraska. To be fair, TransCanada seeks to minimize the chances of a pipeline rupturing by burying it below the river's bed, entering and exiting the bed well away from the banks. But as we have seen this year, our prairie rivers flood, shift and dig their beds deeper in the soft sediments that prevail in Nebraska, especially in the Sand Hills.

Recent analysis by John Stansbury, a water resources researcher and risk assessment instructor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, suggests that the risks of catastrophic pipeline ruptures at Sand Hills river crossings has been underestimated by Trans- Canada.

The proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline would cross 92 miles of the Sand Hills. For 65 of these miles, depth to groundwater is less than 10 feet, meaning the pipeline will be sitting in or very near groundwater. Where it crosses under Sand Hills rivers, it will certainly be in contact with the aquifer.

John Gates and Wayne Woldt, two Nebraska-based scientists who conduct research on groundwater flow and contamination, have pointed out in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that these conditions — sandy soils and a high water table — produce very short lag times between a pipeline's spill of crude oil and aquifer contamination. Only one study to date addresses how crude oil moves through aquifers, and it occurred in Minnesota under conditions quite different than those in the Sand Hills.

Thus, there is insufficient scientific research for us to predict accurately how leaking oil would behave in the water-saturated Sand Hills.

Gates and Woldt correctly argue that before we build a pipeline through this area, we need to determine more clearly how fast and far a plume from spilled oil would spread, as well as what danger of contamination it would pose to lakes, wetlands and rivers that provide so much of Nebraska's water supply.

How much risk should Nebraskans bear in order to move tar sands oil to market? We currently lack the science to make a good assessment. The Sand Hills are an ecological jewel of global importance and provide a large portion of Nebraska's population with drinking water. Its rangeland sustains one of our country's most productive ranch economies. Building this first major pipeline in the region without a solid understanding of an oil leak's impacts would set a reckless and dangerous precedent.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at www.nature.org. To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit www.nature.org/global. To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.

Contact information

Dr. Mace Hack
State Director
The Nature Conservancy
1007 Leavenworth Street
Omaha, NE 68102
(402) 342-0282
(402) 342-0474


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