Update 11/20/2017: The Nebraska Public Service Commission ruled today that the Keystone XL pipeline could proceed, but on an alternate route than the one preferred by TransCanada. A portion of the approved route, (the ‘Keystone Mainline Alternative Route’) is located near the original Keystone pipeline, which also cuts through Nebraska. The original story continues below.
I'm a farmer. That's what I do. I grow things,” says Jim Carlson, who tends fields of corn and soy just outside of Silver Creek, Nebraska. “And I'm concerned about climate change.” A decade ago, Carlson didn’t believe that human emissions were turning up the Earth’s temperature. An environmentalist he decidedly was not. But that was before he’d been forced to become a self-taught scholar of all things petroleum—before the endless lawsuits he now follows closely. It was before the proposed Keystone XL pipeline was routed through his land, land that has been in his family for a century, where he grows corn and soy to feed Americans and our livestock. Before Carlson—and the other landowners he would soon find himself aligned with—had to think through the consequences of what would happen when the pipeline inevitably leaked.
Keystone XL is back in the pipeline
The Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada first proposed building the Keystone XL pipeline, not to be confused with the equally contentious Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), in 2008. DAPL, which was completed earlier this year, runs across 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, and has already racked up two small leaks to the tune of a little over 100 gallons spilled.
Keystone XL, if approved, would stretch 1,179 miles—from Hardisty in Alberta, Canada, across parts of Montana and South Dakota, to Steele City, Nebraska near the Kansas border. There, Keystone XL would join with the existing Keystone pipeline (Keystone One), which pumps petroleum down to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico—the same refineries that leaked thousands of tons of chemical pollutants during Hurricane Harvey. From there, the refined Keystone XL oil would be shipped off and sold on the world market.
In November 2015, shortly before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in which the Paris Climate Agreement was drafted, President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. At the time, Obama stated that approving the pipeline’s construction would undermine America’s burgeoning position as a leader in climate action. Fossil fuels such as oil contribute to climate change by emitting greenhouse gasses like carbon, and the petroleum product set to pump through Keystone XL (known as bitumen) is some of the most carbon-intensive in the game. If conventional oil is vodka, bitumen is moonshine or bathtub gin. It’ll do the trick, but not without grave cost.
The project was resurrected earlier this year, when President Donald Trump overturned Obama’s ruling. But because the pipeline runs through Nebraska, it needs state approval as well as federal. The final decision—which will come sometime this fall—rests in the hands of the Nebraska Public Service Commission. And that approval is not guaranteed. Keystone XL faces fierce public opposition, much of it centered in Nebraska, where farms and ranches (most of them family owned) make up 92 percent of the state’s land. If the Public Service Commission approves the pipeline, those who oppose it will have to give TransCanada access to their property under eminent domain, which is the power of the government to take private land and convert it for public use. This is another point of contention, with some arguing that the state has the right to take the land, while others contend that giving a private company access to private lands isn't exactly public use.
The heartland’s change of heart
The pipeline’s initially proposed route did not include Carlson’s farm. That disappointed him. He knew that oil companies often paid landowners well for access, and he’d heard that the pipeline was a good thing. “I’d heard what everyone else heard,” he recalls. “That it's good for the United States, it’ll lessen our dependence on foreign oil, it'll bring jobs, and all that bunk.”
Carlson isn’t alone in calling foul on those claims. For starters, our dependence on foreign oil is already at a 30-year low. In 2016, according to data from the United States Energy Information Administration, 25 percent of oil consumed in the U.S. came from abroad, up slightly from the 24 percent foreign oil consumed in 2015—the lowest level since 1970. The country’s dependence is expected to continue to decline as a mix of shale gas, improved energy efficiency, and investments in renewable energy continue to pay off.
But there’s also the fact that the oil pumped through Keystone XL isn’t likely to be used in the U.S. at all. Once refined, it will enter the global market—Canada is under no obligation to sell it to us—and do nothing to decrease the country’s dependence on farther-flung nations.
Instead of Carlson’s land, TransCanada first proposed putting the pipeline straight across Nebraska’s famed Sandhills, an undulating expanse of some 20,000 acres boasting dunes as high as 400 feet and as long as 20 miles. It’s a remnant of the retreat of the ice sheets that once covered much of North America, and the largest dune formation in the Western Hemisphere. It also includes some of the most pristine prairie land left in the United States. Every spring, half a billion sandhill cranes flying north from Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma stop over in the Sandhills. It’s a massive and crucial avian migration.
Ranchers use the land too, for the same resource that makes the Sandhills such an excellent spot for resting birds: the water. The sandhills are filled with hundreds of ephemeral lakes and ponds thanks to the Ogallala aquifer, a vast underwater reservoir which rests very close to the sandy surface. The aquifer underlies most of Nebraska, providing much of the state’s water.
Therein lies the problem: A pipeline leak in the Sandhills would almost certainly render swathes of the aquifer unusable. And if TransCanada’s current route proposal is approved, Nebraska’s cherished water could still be at risk.
A different Dune, in this case the seminal science fiction novel, warns that, “a beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” In other words, you want to get the lay of the land before introducing big changes.
To an outsider, a pipeline in Nebraska isn’t necessarily a huge change. When you include pipelines big and small, the state already has more than 20,000 of them. But most of those are natural gas pipelines designed to feed the region’s fertilizer industry, which means feeding the farmers. And for a variety of reasons, a natural gas spill—while not great—is less harmful than an oil leak. Putting a pipeline filled with heavy oil and chemicals over the aquifer (and its recharge zones, the areas designed to help refill and keep it productive) is, in fact, a big change.
Perhaps if TransCanada hadn’t first proposed to put the pipeline not only through a cherished region, but one that rests atop the state’s most precious resource, they would not have encountered such fierce resistance. But they did. And so from the beginning, as it were, the balances were not correct. Nebraskans really, really love their aquifer.
“There's books, there's songs, there's poetry about the Ogallala Aquifer,” says Jane Kleeb. “The aquifer is the biggest natural resource in our state.” Kleeb is the founder of the nonprofit organization Bold Nebraska, which has emerged as the biggest megaphone for voices of Nebraskans who oppose Keystone XL. The group runs informational sessions along the pipeline route, and has worked to coordinate local landowners.
“I think if not for Bold, the pipeline would be in today,” says Art Tanderup. Like Carlson, Tanderup found that his 160 acre farm—comprised of land that has been in his wife’s family for 101 years—is in Keystone’s way. “She was the glue that kept us landowners together, and kept the organizing that happened in the state going.”
While Kleeb had long championed more progressive causes than her newfound farming compatriots, she didn’t launch Bold Nebraska as a pipeline resistance group. She expected to focus on pursuing policies around healthcare—the Affordable Care Act had just passed. By her own admission, Kleeb didn’t know much about environmental issues, either. “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 Sandhills and they still have a ranch there. People starting asking if we’d heard about this pipeline that was coming through.”
So Kleeb and the farmers started educating themselves. The State Department was holding small informational meetings, doing joint presentations with TransCanada about the project. The meetings raised questions not only for Kleeb, but for the farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists in attendance. And those questions led to more research, which led to more questions still, and more research. That led to the growing belief that if the pipeline was to be built, the Sandhills was not the place for it.
Look at a map of the Ogallala aquifer, and you’ll 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. Almost the entire state rests atop it. The Ogallala is behind Nebraska’s agricultural success. Even in the semi-arid Sandhills, ranchers can get water for their herds by sticking a pipe in the ground and just letting the waters flow. The easy access lets ranchers rotate their cattle so they don’t degrade the prairie grasses, a unique mix of short and tall with names like Hairy Grama, Needle and Thread, and Sand Lovegrass. These plants hold onto the sand dunes, helping to keep the whole ecosystem together.
“Everything we do here is out of that aquifer,” says Tanderup, who grows mostly corn, soy, rye, and 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 years, especially during the 1950s and 60s. It was only in the following decade that geologists deduced the water’s real source. The Ogallala is filled with what’s known as geologic or fossil water, created roughly 10 million years ago when a large pool somehow got caught within a permeable layer of rock—a porous sandstone made up of quartz and feldspar, held together with a fine-grained calcium carbonate, the same thing that makes seashells—under the Earth's surface. It stayed there 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 liquid from the surface typically taking millennia to reach the natural underground reservoir.
That slow replenishment rate means that once you use up the water in the aquifer, it’s gone—at least according to any human timescale. Fossil water, like fossil fuel, isn’t renewable. Communities on the Ogallala’s outer edges, in Kansas and in Texas for example, have already had to switch to growing crops that are less reliant on irrigation, or else give up farming altogether, as the Ogallala 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 self-contained nature of the Ogallala leads to another problem. If it’s contaminated, the contamination won’t just flush out. It will sit there, essentially contaminating that portion of the aquifer for good. A pipeline like Keystone XL requires chemicals—some of them carcinogenic—to keep viscous bitumen flowing. And in places like the Sandhills, where the aquifer sits close to the surface, any liquid that leaks onto the ground has a straight shot into the precious reservoir.
From the beginning, a lot of Nebraskans weren’t necessarily opposed to the pipeline but to its placement. They didn’t understand why TransCanada didn’t come in through the eastern part of the state.
John Hansen, President of Nebraska’s Farmers Union, believes that the Sandhills make for a risky shortcut. “On that route, you have a very light sandy soil that is very porous, where water flows through very easily,” he says. “Why would you run a pipeline in an area where, if it leaks, it goes right into the water supply?"
It’s why some farmers believe that the handful of predominantly 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.
A 2014 State Department report on the pipeline found that 3,900 construction jobs will be created if the pipeline is built in one year, and 1,950 jobs will be created if the pipeline is built in two years. But once the pipeline is created, those jobs disappear, leaving behind 35 full-time, permanent positions and 15 temporary contractor jobs. The report also says the pipeline will create around 40,000 indirect jobs in the service and support sectors, a stat pipeline proponents frequently quote. Of course, pipeline spills will create jobs, too—people will need to clean up the mess. Those jobs, though, will be of little solace to the farmers and ranchers who believe the pipeline 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. In 2015 these farms produced 1.7 billion bushels of corn and 24.5 million bushels of soy. There’s wheat too, between 55 and 70 millions bushels of it; enough to make between 800,000 and 1.1 million loaves a year. Nebraska produces more than 2.8 million eggs, and the state's 1.9 million people are outnumbered three to one by cows. And for the most part, all of that food is still produced by the kinds of family farms that Americans say we 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, still being run by those same families. Nebraska is kind of unique in that sense.”
While Kleeb was rapidly getting up to speed on pipeline politics, neither Tanderup, who lives in Western Nebraska, or Carlson, who lives in Central Nebraska, were following the pipeline debates too closely. In Carlson’s case, if he thought of it at all, it was as the golden goose that got away. But pressure based on the pipeline’s shortcut through the Sandhills triggered a reroute—still through the Sandhills, but to the east, away from most beloved scenic spots—where the water table wasn’t quite so high. That plan put the pipeline over a town’s water supply, so that segment got rerouted again. And this time, it went through Carlson’s farm.
“They came, knocked on my door, and offered me a pretty substantial amount of money,” says Carlson. That’s when he decided he should find out more about what was happening in his backyard.
This was in 2012, by which point Bold Nebraska had begun going to communities along the pipeline route and holding town meetings to discuss it. Both Carlson and Tanderup attended in their respective communities.
“They would talk about the contract, and you know, how it was a bad contract,” says Tanderup. TransCanada would essentially pay once for the right to use the land forever. The company didn’t promise to pull up the pipes once it had stopped using them, and farmers could be on the hook if they were found somehow responsible for a leak. Someone digging a posthole on her own land could accidentally strike the pipeline—which is to be buried only three feet deep—and find herself owing a lot more than she’d ever been paid.
Of course, Carlson says, the talks often turned to discussion of the environmental dangers as well. And now he was willing to listen.
Not your grandpa’s oil
If the pipeline is built, the oil inside will come from the tar sand fields of Alberta, Canada. While conventional crude generally emerges from the earth as a liquid, tar sands oil is nearly solid, sharing more in common with Los Angeles’ famed La Brea Tar Pits than what comes out of the gas pump. Companies like TransCanada cut into Alberta’s boreal forests, made up mostly of pines, spruces and larch trees, and dig fifty feet in the ground to get at the cache. They load the oil-laced gravel and sand that they retrieve onto trucks, where they treat it with steam to melt out the sticky oil, called bitumen. When reserves are too deep in the ground for the usual process to work, mining companies dig into the oil-rich layer and send heat down 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 Anthony Swift, Canada project director at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has sued to stop Keystone XL.
By some estimates, for every four barrels of tar sands oil produced, the equivalent of a fifth barrel is released in carbon emissions. It’s a margin 20 percent worse than you get producing conventional crude. It’s also expensive, so oil prices have to be fairly high—upwards of $95 dollars a barrel—to make it worth the trouble. The extraction process can also contaminate waterways, as chemical debris runs off from the site.
In the end, knowing that, Carlson turned down a little more than $300,000 rather than allowing Keystone XL to come through his land.
“It's too dangerous to put through the United States,” he says. “Especially with the Ogallala.”
Bitumen’s risk to humans doesn’t end when it’s extracted from the ground. The extracted 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 compounds like n-hexane, which can cause neurological damage, and benzene, a known human carcinogen—are added to the mix, creating what’s known as diluted bitumen or dilbit. These chemical additives would make up about 30 percent of Keystone XL’s liquid contents.
“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 that once it's released out of the pipeline, the material they use to dilute it readily evaporates while 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 while conventional crude oil floats, bitumen sinks.
This isn’t a theoretical problem, either. In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in Marshall, Michigan and contaminated Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River with hundreds of thousands of gallons of dilbit. Hamilton served as an independent consultant with the Environmental Protection Agency 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.” But you can’t scoop contaminated sediment out of an underground reservoir.
Worst case scenario
In 2011 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.
Like so many pushing back against Keystone, Stansbury came to the issue quite unexpectedly. Just after his grandson had returned from a leadership camp in D.C., Stansbury spotted an article about the proposed pipeline in the paper. Thinking it would be a great way to introduce his grandson to local politics, Stansbury brought him to the community meeting, “I knew nothing about Keystone at this point. I hadn't even heard of it,” Stansbury says. “Then it sort of dropped off my radar.”
And it stayed off of his radar, until someone at the environmental group Friends of the Earth called him. They’d been referred to Stansbury—by whom, he still doesn’t know—while looking for someone to write a report on the worst case spill scenario.
Stansbury did it, he says, because, “I was already aware from reading TransCanada documents that the documents were difficult enough, and misleading enough, that I was pretty sure our decision makers wouldn't actually understand the science.”
For example, TransCanada reported the potential frequency of significant spills based on each mile of pipeline. One major spill on the 1,673 miles of pipeline about every five years sounds like a lot. But TransCanada can present the same data as indicating major spills less than once a millennium. It’s technically correct, but what they mean is that you can expect a spill at any given mile-long segment along the pipeline during that span of time. With those odds, the pipeline is still leaking—significantly leaking—somewhere at least once every five years.
Similarly, the National Environmental Policy Act required TransCanada to study potential impacts under the best case and worse case scenarios. But, says Stansbury, their pessimistic simulation generally used average or best case numbers, producing something more like a best-case-to-average-case assessment than an actual worst case scenario.
TransCanada estimated that in the event of a big spill, it would take 12 minutes to shut down the pipeline—under the worst possible circumstances. But it’s actually impossible for TransCanada to shut down the pipeline in less than 12 minutes, Stansbury says, so the results of that simulation are still relatively rosey.
In working to correct some of these misleading figures, Stansbury concluded that a major spill as the pipeline crossed the Platte River could release 5.9 million gallons of dilbit, spreading pollutants such as benzene and rendering the water undrinkable for people as far south as Kansas City, Missouri. Even a small leak from an underground rupture in the Sandhills could pollute almost 5 billion gallons of groundwater, if it went undetected.
The report didn’t address agriculture directly, but 92 percent of Nebraska’s land is devoted to that industry. The same water used to slake human thirst quenches countless fields and livestock. It follows that a spill would devastate surrounding farms.
Carlson is confident that Keystone XL is no good for farmers. “TransCanada's pipeline is good for the foreign countries that get the oil,” he says. “It's good for the refineries that refine the oil along the Coast of Texas.”
And sometimes, it’s not even great for them.
All Pipelines Leak
On April 2nd, 2016, Loren Schultz—living near Freeman, South Dakota at the time—received a call from a neighbor. They’d found a strange substance on Schultz’s farm. It turned out to be dilbit, seeping up from the original Keystone pipeline sitting beneath his property. By the time the leak was over, an estimated 16,000 gallons of oil had oozed onto his 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 than 7 million gallons of spilled oil. Many were due to pipe corrosion, but some could only be blamed on what can loosely be described as acts of God—like when lightning struck a South Dakota pipeline.
In a statement to Popular Science, TransCanada writes that the company “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 that statement obscures the fact that TransCanada’s systems allow for as much as two percent of the 510,000 barrels dilbit that could pass through the pipeline daily to leak undetected. And it’s important to note that when pipelines leak, the problem isn’t usually caught by high-tech leak detection systems. People like Schultz’s neighbor often spot them first. Since much of the pipeline passes through sparsely populated stretches of land, a leak small enough to go undetected by TransCanada could last quite some time, spilling a great deal of oil.
Ten days before the 2010 dilbit spill on the Kalamazoo River, in fact, the Enbridge executive who controlled that pipeline gave a congressional testimony that the company's response time to a leak could be, “nearly instantaneous.” in reality, it took almost 17 hours for them to shut down the spill, and nearly five years to clean it up.
“We're not taking care of what God has given us,” says Carlson, who has moved from wanting the pipeline on his land to thinking that we should keep oil in the ground. “We're not taking care of it in the proper way. And we're not protecting it for our future generations. It's a sin what we're doing, as far as that's concerned.”
That said, not all Nebraskans opposed the pipeline. Not even all Nebraskan farmers oppose it. In Art Tanderup’s county, just 26 families out of 90 have refused to allow the pipeline to the pass through their land. The rest have said yes to the extra income.
“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. “It's all about money and oil companies and Republicans. 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 the reality is that we live in a society still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Most of us still use oil, in the form of gasoline, to power our cars. And we’re surrounded by plastic, which is made from oil. 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 the risk that it poses to the land, but the fact that it essentially commits us to the continued use of an outdated, harmful resource. If Nebraska can stave off the pipeline, advocates argue, that oil can’t make it to the global market—TransCanada’s backup plan of carrying the stuff by rail would require specialized heated tank cars, and many doubt its economic feasibility.
In other words, if we don't build it, it won't come.
Farmers going green
In August Bold Nebraska (in coordination with 350.org, Indigenous Environmental Network, and a coalition of other groups) launched a $50,000 dollar crowdfunding effort to build solar installations inside the proposed pipeline route. It’s a stunt, but a practical one. What started as a movement to protect Nebraska’s water is bigger now: It’s not enough to keep the pipeline out. We need to get off of oil, too.
“My wife and I said, well, we try to burn biodiesel, we try and burn ethanol, but we need to do more,” says Tanderup, who readily admits that the pipeline has transformed him into an activist. He’s heard personally from a lot of folks who think the idea of a farm without fossil fuels is laughably impractical. He feels differently, and he’s proving that he’s not all talk. “We pretty much took our savings out of the bank and invested in a solar system for our farm,” he says. The 91 percent of the farm’s kilowatt needs it generated last year wasn’t enough to satisfy them. “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.”
Tanderup isn’t alone in his newfound climate awareness. Kleeb says that over time, more and more of the people coming to Bold Nebraska’s meetings have expressed worry over the fate of the environment in addition to their own farms. They’re eagerly awaiting the Nebraska Public Service Commission’s decision on Keystone (which will come sometime before Thanksgiving 2017) but the fight has woken them up to larger concerns, and made for some surprising alliances in the historically Republican state.
“About two or three years into the fight, one of the farmers came up to me if I had ever heard of the documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” says Kleeb. “I started to laugh—I told him that indeed I had, but it’d been a while. And he was like, ‘well, my daughter got me a Netflix subscription for Christmas, and I've been watching all of these documentaries on climate change and man, we really should have been listening to Al Gore.’”
Now that his eyes are open, Carlson sees the signs of a warming climate all around him. Rising global temperatures make for an earlier spring, and an earlier spring means an earlier planting season. “We plant corn three weeks earlier than we used to,” he says.
“You and me are probably lucky, because we won't see it. It's kind of like the frog in the pot of water: it's cool when you first put it on the stove, and then it warms up so gradually that he just ends up getting fried. But our kids and our families and our descendents will have to deal with it one way or another.”