Sue Mitchell (holding the sign) and Bailey Kraus (on her horse) protest the proposed Keystone Pipeline at a public hearing in Atkinson last Thursday.
ATKINSON - Sandhills residents turned out in force last Thursday in Atkinson for a special public hearing convened by the State Department on a proposed pipeline to be built across Nebraska by TransCanada (partnered with ConocoPhillips).
The controversial $13 billion pipeline project, known as Keystone XL, if built, will carry up to 900,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The proposed Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project is a 36-inch oil pipeline that would begin at Hardisty, Alberta and extend southeast through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.
The proposed route passes through the Nebraska Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer. The pipeline will slice across 92 miles of the Sandhills and 250 miles of farm and ranch land. The counties it would cross are Boone, Fillmore, Garfield, Greeley, Hamilton, Jefferson, Keya Paha, Merrick, Nance, Saline, Wheeler and York. There are over 1,000 groundwater wells in the pipeline path and numerous smaller wells and seasonal surface water bodies.
Fear of contaminating the Ogallala Aquifer is at the center of much of the debate.
Proponents Say ...
Pipeline offers new jobs, energy independence
TransCanada says the pipeline project would lead to more than 120,000 new U.S. jobs, 7,500 of them in Nebraska, and $20 billion in economic growth, including more than $11 million in state and local taxes for Nebraska. How much of this growth is permanent and how many of the jobs are here to stay?
Many of the jobs forecast by TransCanada are for construction of the pipeline itself. Once the pipeline is completed (sometime in 2012), those jobs are likely to go with it. TransCanada brought two busloads of employees to fill Atkinsonâ€™s high school auditorium and show support for the pipeline. There were some locals in attendance, however, that also agreed with building the pipeline.
John Sieler (Nebraska State Board of Education member) spoke in favor of the pipeline citing jobs, economic growth and energy independence as his reasons.
Mitchell Parker, a member of the Omaha Tribal Council, also supports the Keystone XL pipeline for economic reasons. Parker estimates that unemployment may be as high as 78 percent for the tribe and the pipeline would bring much needed relief in that area.
The Omaha Tribe can be found in eastern Nebraska about three miles from the Missouri River, although historically, Parker claims the Sandhills was once their home. With that, Mitchell expressed his concern about water contamination.
â€śWater is part of our culture. All of Godâ€™s creation canâ€™t survive without water.â€ť
Parker also expressed his gratitude towards TransCanada for letting them be part of this process.
â€śThe pipeline at least came and asked what we think. No one has ever done that before.â€ť
Opponents say no ...
They warn of ecological disaster
The majority of the audience Thursday seemed opposed to the Keystone pipeline. Many of those against the pipeline listed contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer as their chief concern. The Ogallala Aquifer stretches across eight states (the largest section being in Nebraska) and provides nearly one-third of the groundwater used to irrigate US crops.
First to speak at the public hearing in Atkinson was Nebraska State Senator Annette Dubas (34th Legislative District). Dubas was not opposed to the idea of a pipeline or job creation, but was â€śopposed to the route through Nebraskaâ€™s most ecologically sensitive area â€“ the Sandhills.â€ť Dubas named the Ogallala Aquifer as one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. Speaking to the representatives of the State Department present, Senator Dubas argued that the federal government does not have siting authority for oil pipelines, even interstate pipelines.
Quoting a congressional research memo, Dubas stated, â€śIn the absence of federal siting authority, state laws establish primary siting authority for oil pipelines.â€ť Senator Dubas introduced a bill this week that would enable Nebraska siting authority over oil pipelines.
State Director of Audubon Nebraska, Marian Langan, was also in Atkinson and weighed in on the topic. The official position of Audubon is that the pipeline is dangerous for Nebraska. The best scenario, Langan argued, would be for the permit for the pipeline to be denied outright. At the very least, she said, get it out of the Sandhills.
â€śWe are sitting on top of the most pristine body of water in the country. Itâ€™s ludicrous to run the pipeline through here.â€ť Langan claims that the Keystone pipeline that is already in the ground has leaked at least fourteen times. The tar sands oil that the pipeline would carry contains a high number of toxins such as benzene and toluene. Benzene is a known carcinogen.
â€śThe economic value of the aquiferâ€¦the livelihood for this generation and future generations is going to be completely destroyed. Nebraska is going to be known as that tragic place where that terrible oil spill happened.â€ť
Dairy Farmer Robert Bernt of Clear Creek Organic Farms in Spalding, set up a table outside of the meeting. Bernt, along with his family, handed out samples of his farm made cheeses and talked with passerbys about his opposition to the pipeline.
Bernt expressed his concerns over the recent earthquakes in the Sandhills and the pipelines ability to withstand leaking under such conditions. The proposed pipeline would cross the Cedar River where Berntâ€™s 80 head of dairy cows and 40 head of beef cattle drink. His son also runs an outfitting and tanking business on the Cedar River. Bernt is concerned an oil spill would destroy his farm and any tourist business on the river.
One of the arguments for a new oil pipeline is national security but Bernt argues, â€śmore national security can be gained with clean fresh water that oil. When water gets in short supply, we can bargain in and out of whatever we want to with the Ogallala Aquifer.â€ť
Other groups in Nebraska opposing the pipeline include the Center for Rural Affairs, two NRDs including the Lower Niobrara and Upper Elkhorn, Nebraska Sierra Club, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Nebraska League of Conservation Voters, Nebraska Green Party, Nebraskans for Peace, and the Nebraskan Farmers Union.
Recent pipeline leaks
TransCanada vowed that their pipeline is safe and creates little harm to the environment. They claim that the Sandhills represent a sedimentary formation of sands, gravels and silts and that groundwater movement is very slowly. Any spills, they say, could be quickly contained.
Ranchers in the area say that water movement varies from season to season and can move quickly at certain times. Dr. John Stansbury, associate professor of UNLâ€™s Department of Engineering, predicted in a recent study that the Keystone XL pipeline would experience 91 leaks over the next 50 years.
Pipeline oil leaks are not uncommon. In July of this year, 42,000 gallons spilled onto Montanaâ€™s Yellowstone River from ExxonMobileâ€™s Silvertip Pipeline. Most of the damage was within 50 miles of the spill but reports of oil were found as far as 240 miles away. This was from a 12-inch pipe, a third the size of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
The Keystone would transport up to 21.4 million gallons of tar sands oil every day from Alberta to Texas. The pipeline would cross more than 70 rivers and streams (including the Yellowstone) and the Ogallala Aquifer.
Last year, Michigan experienced its worst environmental disaster when a pipeline spilled 840,000 gallons of oil into a creek linked to the Kalamazoo River, resulting in $700 million worth of damage.
In July, seven U.S. Senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding their concern over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the impacts on the Yellowstone River in Montana from a leak in ExxonMobil's Silvertip pipe-line.
The Senators (none from Nebraska) specifically name the danger to the Ogallala Aquifer.
â€śThe DOS should more thoroughly analyze alternate routes for Keystone XL that minimize the length of pipeline in the U.S. and avoid the fragile Sandhills region of the Ogallala aquifer. The Ogallala aquifer is the source of freshwater for over 2 million Americans.â€ť
11th Hour for Nebraska Legislature
Nebraskaâ€™s Secretary of State John Gale expressed that he was sympathetic to the concerns of the towns and ranchers of the Sandhills.
â€śIâ€™m very proud of people for standing up and expressing their concerns about the potential impact of the pipeline route.â€ť Secretary Gale said that he must try to remain neutral on the matter, as there was the potential for a special session of the legislature to be called to discuss the pipeline.
Secretary Gale did tell the Custer County Chief that were several questions surrounding the pipeline issue.
If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted a permit for the Keystone Pipeline, who would then be responsible for oversight?
Was this a federal issue or a state one? Montana and South Dakota have made it public that they would exercise state jurisdiction over routing issues, as well as safety and security. Nebraska may have gotten into the game too late to influence the outcome.
â€śItâ€™s the eleventh hour for Nebraska to assert any jurisdiction,â€ť said Secretary Gale. â€śThe legislature at best could enact a law to create a mechanism for examining routing and pipeline safety and security. But then someone would need to look into those issues. There is no guarantee that after extensive hearings, engineering, technical and environmental investigations that the agency wouldnâ€™t end up granting the permit across Nebraska anyway.â€ť
The bigger question down the road may be should this mechanism be created now anyway in case of future pipelines that may be routed through Nebraska. This is not likely to be the last.
Governor Heineman and Senator Johanns have both expressed opposition to the pipeline.
How to contact your elected officials
Governor Dave Heineman
Email: Use form on Governor.Nebraska.gov
U.S. Senator Ben Nelson
Email: Use form on BenNelson.senate.gov
U.S. Senator Mike Johanns
Email: Use form on Johanns.senate.gov
Rep. Adrian Smith
Email: Use form on Adriansmith.house.gov