There’s a lot more to the Keystone XL fight than just oil

Three key things to understand about the controversey

“I want an annulment,” Art Tanderup tells Popular Science. He’s not talking about his wife, he’s talking about wanting a permanent separation from the Keystone XL pipeline. The Nebraska’s Public Service Commission has spent this week debating the controversial pipeline’s fate.

If approved, Keystone XL—not to be confused with the also controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)—would stretch 1,179 miles from Hardisty in Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. There it would join the existing Keystone pipeline, and the oil would be pumped down to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Since TransCanada proposed the pipeline back in 2008 Keystone XL has faced fierce public opposition, much of it centered in Nebraska.

“There’s a diversity of perspective related to the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska,” says John Hansen, President of Nebraska’s Farmers Union.

On one side are people who oppose the pipeline, including farmers like Tanderup. He lives in Northeast Nebraska on a farm he’s proud to say has remained in his wife’s family for 101 years. The opposition says the pipeline was rammed through without a proper environmental review and that when—not if—it leaks, it will destroy the land that they treasure. In particular, they point to the risks the pipeline poises to segments of the Ogallala aquifer, a vast underwater reservoir which underlies much of Nebraska providing most of the state’s water.

On the other side are other farmers, who stand to earn income from land leases if the pipeline comes through. In the county where Tanderup lives, 26 families out of 90 have refused to allow the pipeline to the pass through their land. The rest have said yes. Along with them stands TransCanada, the company trying to build the pipeline. TransCanada claims that the pipeline will create jobs, not only along the pipeline route, but also down in the Gulf of Mexico as refineries ramp up production to process the oil they are piping down from the Canadian oilfields.

After eight years of rising tensions, the pipeline was declared dead in 2015 when the Obama administration announced that it had rejected the proposed conduit. But earlier this year, President Trump revived the project. The project could die a second death if Nebraska decides that the pipeline is not in the state’s own interest—hence the Nebraska Public Service Commission hearings. To understand why the pipeline’s construction has been so contentious in Nebraska, it helps to understand perhaps three critical things about Nebraska and about the pipeline.

Proposed pipeline route.
Proposed pipeline route. TransCanada

Beloved Waters

The first thing, you need to know, perhaps, is that Nebraskans really love their aquifer.

“There’s books, there’s songs, there’s poetry about the Ogallala Aquifer,” says Jane Kleeb, the founder of the progressive nonprofit organization Bold Nebraska. Her organization organizes farmers and ranchers in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline. “The aquifer is the biggest natural resource in our state.”

Kleeb didn’t launch Bold Nebraska as a pipeline resistance group. She expected to focus on pursuing progressive issues around healthcare—the Affordable Care Act had just passed. “But we got a phone call from the Nebraska Wildlife Federation asking if we had heard about this pipeline,” says Kleeb. “And then we got several phone calls from farmers and ranchers who knew me because my husband’s in the cattle industry and his family homesteaded out in the Sand Hills and they still have a ranch there. The calls were like: ‘Have you heard about this pipeline? It’s coming through.'”

Ogallala aquifer map
Ogallala aquifer map USGS

If you look at a map of the Ogallala aquifer, you’d see that it reaches as far north as South Dakota and as far south as Texas. Despite its size, most states only touch the aquifer in relatively small pockets. Nebraska is the exception. Here, you notice that almost the whole state rests atop the aquifer. The Ogallala is the reason why Nebraska is such a productive agricultural state. Even in the semi-arid Sand Hills region, ranchers can get water for their herds by sticking a pipe in the ground and just letting the waters from shallow aquifer flow out. The ubiquity of the landform in the area gives ranchers the ability to rotate their cattle so they don’t degrade the grass that holds on to the sand dunes, helping to preserve the ecosystem.

“Everything we do here is out of that aquifer,” says Tanderup who grows mostly corn, soy, rye, cover crops on his farm. “We drink it, the livestock drink it, we irrigate with it, and we water our gardens with it. It’s our water.”

Though the aquifer is held in high esteem, it is already in a precarious situation. People have overused the Ogallala’s waters for decades, especially during the 1950s and 60s, before state and federal geologists understood the source of the Ogallala’s abundance. The Ogallala is filled with what’s known as geologic or fossil water, which was trapped within a permeable layer of rock under the Earth’s surface for thousands of years until humans started pulling it out. While surface rivers and streams are replenished each time it rains, this aquifer replenishes itself very, very, slowly, with water from the surface typically taking millennia to reach the natural underground reservoir.

So in the case of the Ogallala, once you use up the water in the aquifer, it’s gone—at least according to any human relevant timescale. Fossil water, like fossil fuels, isn’t renewable. Already communities on the Ogallala’s outer edges, in Kansas and in Texas for example, have had switch to growing crops that are less reliant on irrigation or to give up farming altogether as the Ogallala’s water shrinks back from their communities. But in Nebraska, so far, the aquifer seems to be holding, and farmers are incorporating agricultural practices to try and get it to last even longer.

But the slow pace and contained nature of the Ogallala leads to another problem. If it’s contaminated, the contamination won’t just flush out. It will just sit there, essentially permanently contaminating that portion of the aquifer. It’s why plenty of people, like Tanderup, believe that the handful of predominately short-term jobs the pipeline will create—mainly during construction—will not be balanced by the long-term risk of any pollution leaking into to their aquifer. An oil spill in this area, they believe would harm not only their most valued natural resource, but also their livelihoods and the American food supply.

Nebraska farmers, after all, aren’t subsistence farmers. This is the United States’ grain basket, the source of corn, soy, and wheat that underlies our food system, providing everything from animal feed to breakfast cereal. And these are the kind of farmers that Americans claim to love.

“We don’t have a ton of corporate agriculture in our state,” says Kleeb. “It’s still family farms and ranches of people who homesteaded in the 1800s are still being run by those same families. Nebraska is kind of unique in that sense.”

Nebraska pipeline map
“Assessing Petroleum Pipelines – Facts and Safety” report shows the many pipelines that already exist in Nebraska. Nebraska Extension

A few years back John Stansbury, an Associate Professor of Environmental Water Resources Engineering at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln did a sort of worse case analysis to see what would happen if there was a major spill of the Keystone XL Pipeline. He found that in the event of a major spill, the pipeline would threaten the drinking water supply of hundreds of thousands of people.

Nebraska is not a state that is new to pipelines – there are more than 20,000 miles of pipeline crisscrossing the state. The opposition to Keystone XL isn’t necessarily to pipelines in general, but to this pipeline in particular. What makes Keystone XL so special? Part of it is that the pipelines runs over an especially delicate part of the aquifer. The Ogallala isn’t just one continuous layer of water-logged rock spread at an even thickness across the state. In some places it’s deep under protective layers of clay, soil, and rock that acts as a barrier and a filter to any water or contaminants that would sink into the ground. In other places, like the Sand Hills, the aquifer is much closer to the surface, which means not only is the water more accessible, but any liquid that falls in the area has a straight shot into the aquifer itself.

“TransCanada has simply looked at a map and said in order to get to Steel City, instead of going further east and coming down the much heavier clay soil based route that they had already come through in their previous pipeline they just wanted to take a short cut through the Sand Hills,” says Hansen. “On that route, you have a very light sandy soil that is very porous where water flows through very easily. Why would you run a pipeline in an area where it leaks it goes right into the water supply?”

The location of the proposed pipeline is part of what made Stansbury’s projections so catastrophic. But what the pipeline carries is another huge part of this controversy. This is the second thing people need to understand about the Keystone XL pipeline—it wouldn’t contain anything near what most people would think of as oil.

Athabasca oil sands satellite images
The Athabasca oil sands in Canada development from 1984 to 2011. NASA

Not your grandparent’s oil

When it comes to tar sands it’s important to understand what tar sands are,” says Anthony Swift, Canada project director at the National Resources Defense Council, which has sued to stop Keystone XL project.

The oil that will fill the Keystone XL pipeline comes from Alberta, Canada. Tar sands oil isn’t conventional crude. In its reservoirs underground it is an almost solid substance. Producers clear cut boreal forests in Alberta and dig fifty feet in the ground to get at the reserves. The oil-laced gravel and sand that they retrieve is loaded onto trucks where they treat it with steam that melts the sticky oil, called bitumen, out of the sand and rock. In the cases where the reserves are deep in the ground, the mining companies dig into the oil-rick layer and send heat underground to melt the oil before pumping it up to the surface.

“While it doesn’t leave the scar in the boreal forest the way the mines do, it’s even more energy intensive,” says Swift.

By some estimates for every four barrels of oil sands oil produce, the equivalent of a fifth barrel of oil is released in carbon emissions. It’s also expensive, so oil prices have to be fairly high, typically above $95 dollars a barrel, to make it financially worth the trouble of wresting the oil out the oil sands.

The resulting bitumen isn’t liquid—it’s closer to the consistency of molasses or peanut butter. To get it to flow through a pipeline chemical additives—often including chemicals like n-hexane which can cause neurological damage and benzene a known human carcinogen—are added to the mix. Up to 30 percent of the what would flow through the Keystone XL pipeline would be these chemical additives.

“Once they dilute the bitumen it becomes similar to the consistency of conventional crude oil” says Steve Hamilton an ecologist at Michigan State University. “The problem is once it’s released out of the pipeline the material they use to dilute it readily evaporates and the heavy bitumen component is left behind.”

There are two problems with this. The first, is that the bitumen sticks to everything – vegetation, rocks, riverbanks – and it’s not easily washed away. The second, is that the bitumen sinks, whereas conventional crude oil floats.

We know this because in 2010 an Enbridge pipeline ruptured over the Kalamazoo river in Marshall, Michigan and contaminated Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River with hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil. Hamilton served as an independent consultant with the EPA on the clean-up, which took nearly five years.

The fact that bitumen sinks, “made the clean-up far more difficult than it otherwise would have been,” says Hamilton. “Normally with oil and water you capture the floating oil—you put out booms to absorb or direct it to a place where it could be skimmed. Once it goes beneath the surface it’s a really different problem, you can’t see it. Dredging is the only thing that worked in the Kalamazoo river.”

The problem is, you can’t dredge an underground aquifer. If the bitumen makes it into the aquifer it’ll stay there. That part of the aquifer will remain contaminated. And the idea that the pipeline will leak isn’t farfetched. Because the third thing you need to know about pipelines is that all pipelines leak.

EPA clean up of Enbridge oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The spill was dilituted bitium or dilbit, the same kind of oil that would be carried by the Keystone XL pipeline. EPA

All Pipelines Leak

On April 2nd, 2016, a neighbor of Loren Schultz near Freeman, South Dakota called her to say she’d detected a strange substance on her property. The strange substance turned out to be diluted bitumen, or dilbit, seeping up from the original Keystone pipeline which passed underground through Loren Schultz’s property. When the leak it was over, an estimated 16,000 gallons of oil had spilled onto her land.

In 2015, High Country News put together a map detailing five years of leaks reported to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. They found that over that period there were more than 1,000 crude oil pipeline leaks totaling more 7 million gallons of oil spilled. Many were due to corrosion of the pipes, but some were due to what can loosely be described as acts of God—like when lightning struck a South Dakota pipeline.

In a written statement to Popular Science TransCanada states that it “has implemented a leak detection strategy incorporating overlapping methodologies to detect any leak on the pipeline. Our Oil Control Center operates around the clock using computerized leak detection systems as well as a sophisticated Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system to monitor for leaks in real-time.  The use of these real-time systems is supplemented by non-real-time methods to inspect, monitor and protect our pipelines.”

But the statement obscures the fact that TransCanada’s systems can allow for as much as 2-percent of the up to 510,000 barrels dilbit that would pass through the pipeline daily, to leak undetected. [[SOURCING OR LINK?]] It ignores the fact that when pipelines leak, most leaks are detected not by high tech leak detection systems, but by people like Schutz’s neighbor. [[SOURCING OR LINK?]] And that since much of the pipeline passes through stretches of land that are sparsely populated a leak small enough to go undetected could last quite some time, spilling with it a great deal of oil before it’s detected.

Ten days before the spill ok Schutz’s farm, an Enbridge executive had given congressional testimony that its response time to a leak could be, “nearly instantaneous,” in reality, it took almost 17 hours for them to shut down the pipeline.

The most obvious question, then, given the preponderance of evidence suggesting that the pipeline is not a good idea, is how is it still in contention. Jim Carlson, a farmer from Central Nebraska has a good idea – money.

“TransCanada has thrown money around along the route so that people think they are one of their good buddies. They’ve given to kids’ baseball teams, for example, and they’re still doling out money,” says Carlson a farmer from Central Nebraska. The pipeline would cut through his land, and like Tanderup he opposes the pipeline. But he didn’t in the beginning.

When the pipeline was first proposed, the route did not run through Carlson’s land, a fact that left him dismayed because he knew that oil companies often paid landowners well for access to their land. The pipeline was eventually rerouted around a town because of that community’s watershed area straight through Carlson’s land.

“At first when I didn’t know anything about the tar sand pipeline when I heard just what everyone else heard that it’s good for the United States, lessen our dependence on foreign oil it’ll bring jobs and all that bunk,” says Carlson. When TransCanada came knocking on his door, he did some research into the issue and he says, “I found out different.”

Carlson turned down a little over $300,000 because he felt that strong about not letting that happen.

“It’s all about money and oil companies and Republicans,” says Carlson. “I’m a Republican, but I’m not very proud of them. I was glad when Obama was in for one reason—he was against the pipeline. Science has proven that we shouldn’t build it.”

But even as people like Carlson are convinced that the pipeline is a bad idea, the reality is that we live in a society that is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Most of us still use oil, in the form of gasoline, to power our cars and we live in a world surrounded by plastic, which is an oil distillate. But pipeline opponents like NRDC’s Anthony Swift says that’s the point – that the broader problem with the Keystone XL pipeline is not just want the risk that it poses to the land, but rather that by putting in a pipeline we’re essentially committing ourselves to an outdated fuel source that’s bad for the planet.

“It’s  the amount of pressure and the chemicals that allow the dilbit to to flow in liquid form,” says Bold Nebraska’s Kleeb. “Which is also why when TransCanada  says if it doesn’t go by pipe it’ll go by rail, it’s a lie because they would have to build specialized heated tank cars. Otherwise it would be like a rock when they were trying to transport it.”

In other words, if we don’t build it, it won’t come.

“Partway into this a lot of people would call and say that you’ve got a farm you’ve got to use fossil fuels, ha ha ha type attitude,” says Art Tanderup the farmer from Northeastern Nebraska. “We, my wife and I, said, well, we try to burn biodiesel we try and burn ethanol, but we need to do more. We pretty much took our savings out of the bank and invested in a solar system for our farm. This last year that produced 91 percent of the kilowatts that we used on our farm. And we said ok, that’s not enough. So, we bought an electric car, and we charge it off of the solar panels. I feel like we have to do more, but I haven’t found a battery powered tractor or combine yet.”

Last month Bold Nebraska in coordination with, Indigenous Environmental Network and a coalition of other groups launched $50,000 dollar crowdfunding effort to build solar installations inside the proposed pipeline route to help power farms and ranches. The first proposed installation would be on Jim Carlson’s farm.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission, overseen by the Nichole Mulcahy the deputy director and legal counsel of the commission’s natural gas and pipeline department is expected to make a decision by November 23rd of this year though a decision could be reached as early as September 14th. Ordinarily the proceedings would be overseen by the department’s director, in this case Scott Coburn, but from 1981to 2010 he was employed by the Northern Border Pipeline Company of which TransCanada became a controlling partner in 2006. As a condition of his employment with the Nebraska Public Service Commission, Coburn recused himself from any dealings related to TransCanada.