Pipeline controversy continues as decision deadline gets closer

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August 11, 2011 - 7:00pm

Controversy over a proposed oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Texas is bubbling up again. In Nebraska, critics are focusing on the threat to underground water supplies.

Last Friday, on warm night in Lincoln, a feisty crowd swarmed the sidewalks. But it wasn't a college bar crawl. Half a dozen blocks from the downtown bars, just across the street from the Capitol, hundreds of people ringed the Governor's Mansion to make a point, whooping and chanting "Save our water!" .


Fred Knapp photo

Demonstrators against the proposed pipeline protest outside the Nebraska Governor's Mansion.

TransCanada map

TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline cuts across six states and two Canadian provinces.

TransCanada map

Details of proposed Keystone XL pipeline route across Nebraska.

The object of all the attention was Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Some critics want him to ask the Legislature to ban the proposed oil pipeline from Nebraska's Sandhills, which sit atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water source stretching from South Dakota to Texas. Others, concerned about the environmental impact of extracting oil from Alberta's tar sands, want the pipeline stopped altogether. .

Supporters say the pipeline will create jobs and assure a supply of oil from a friendly country. Critics point to leaks that have occurred in existing pipelines built by the same company, TransCanada.

Bob Banderet
North Dakota rancher


Critics point to the stories of people like North Dakota rancher Bob Banderet, who lives a mile and a half from TransCanada's Keystone pipeline. At a recent meeting in Lincoln sponsored by pipeline opponents, Banderet described what happened one early morning this May. .

"We were just finishing up calving, so that's probably why I was out there so early in the morning," he recalled. Walking out his door, Banderet said he saw a "geyser" of oil shooting up in the air. "It was over the tops of the cottonwood trees," he said, estimating its height at 60 or 80 feet. .

Banderet called TransCanada to report the spill. He said the company first sent out a lone technician, who took about two and a half hours to get there to confirm the spill. "Now, that's after an eyewitness has already said that there was oil shooting 60 feet in the air - I would have thought that maybe that was confirmation enough," he said. After the technician arrived, cleanup crews were called, and the first cleanup trailer arrived five hours after the spill was reported, Banderet said. .

Jeff Rauh
TransCanada spokesman

TransCanada spokesman Jeff Rauh doesn't dispute the timeline Banderet described. But Rauh said that's not the whole story. "What was not mentioned was that prior to that, you've got immediate action occurring to secure the pipeline, to shut the valves, to isolate the leak. So that the leak is stopped and then the process becomes one of containing and cleaning up," he explained. .

A report TransCanada filed on the incident with the North Dakota Public Utilities Commission said the company had already begun to detect problems with the line more than a half-hour before Banderet called. It says the entire pipeline system was shut down nine minutes after he called, and a total of 500 barrels of oil spilled before cleanup began. .

Banderet calls the response inadequate. The United States Department of Transportation ordered the pipeline shut down after another leak in Kansas, but it was reopened after a week. Rauh said the system worked on the existing Keystone pipeline, and will work if the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is permitted to cut across the Sandhills, instead of taking a more circuitous route to avoid the Ogallala Aquifer. .

"The assessment has demonstrated that the impacts of a release in the Sandhills are localized, and that if you move it to another location you're not going to eliminate that risk." To the contrary, he added, by building on a longer route to avoid the area, "you actually increase risk." .

The question of routing has become somewhat of a political football. Heineman said he'd prefer a route that avoids the Sandhills. But the Republican governor says people who want the state to regulate routing should pressure Washington Democrats instead of him. "They ought to put their attention on the federal regulatory process. Ask Sen. Ben Nelson to call President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and deny the permit. It would end right there. It would be over," he declared. .

In response, Nelson issued a statement saying what Heineman was suggesting he do would be illegal. Heineman has previously buttressed his own reluctance to get involved by referring to the state's rejection of a nuclear waste site when Nelson was governor. The companies involved sued, and the state had to refund them more than 150 million dollars. .

Anthony Swift
Natural Resources Defense Council

That issue involved administering laws already on the books. The question of pipeline routing could involve creating new laws. Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that's not a federal matter. "What the federal government does not have authority over, and in fact has been told they cannot regulate in any way, are questions of the pipeline routing," Swift said. "And what this means is that if pipeline routing is not a federal government area of jurisdiction, it is solely in the states' -- and if not in the states' in the counties' -- power to regulate pipeline routing." .

TransCanada's Rauh says just because that power exists, it doesn't have to be used. "Routing a pipeline is something that states can do. What is missed is we're in the third year of a federal regulatory review that is looking at those very issues," he said. .

Since the pipeline would cross an international border, the State Department is heading up that review. Its latest environmental impact statement says alternative routes would not offer environmental advantages. (To see the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, click here)The Environmental Protection Agency has questioned that conclusion. (To see the EPA's reaction letter, click here)

The State Department is planning public meetings in the capital of each state the pipeline would cross: Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as additional meetings on the Gulf Coast and in the Sandhills. A spokeswoman said those meetings are expected to be held in second half of September. A final decision on whether or not to permit the pipeline is expected by the end of the year.



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