Water vs. oil: Protecting the Ogallala Aquifer from the Keystone XL pipeline

On January 18th, 2012, environmentalists won a small victory when US President Barrack Obama denied TransCanada’s application for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama was acting on the advice of former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who believed that the Republican effort to rush the approval of the project prevented a full environmental assessment [1]. The proposed project had also raised concerns of the possibility of oil spills and the serious environmental implications that exist with the current pipeline route. The pipeline route travels over the Ogallala aquifer, which is the US Mid-West’s largest underground water supply [2]. TransCanada does not have a good track-record with oil spills; twelve oil spills in one year, one of which dumped 21,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota [3]. Spills over the Ogallala aquifer can present devastating environmental consequences. Upon denying TransCanada’s permit application, President Obama allowed the proponent to reapply for a permit for a project with alternative pipeline routes. TransCanada took advantage of this opportunity and submitted a new application to the Department of State on May 4th, 2012. The new application included alternative pipeline routes through Nebraska, which are shown in the following image.

[3] (ERM, 2013, p. ES-7)

[3] (ERM, 2013, p. ES-7)

TransCanada followed up in September by submitting their Environmental Report which characterized the “modifications to the originally proposed pipeline route to reduce environmental impacts, improve constructability, and in response to agency and public comments” [4]. However, the US Department of State will conduct a full and comprehensive review which will inform the President in his decision of whether or not to approve the project. The US Department of State, pursuant to interim guidance, selected Environmental Resources Management (ERM) as an independent third-party contractor to perform the assessment. A Draft Supplementary EIS was completed on March 1st, 2013.

Therefore, what improvements have been made from the original application and the Final EIS in 2011? The Draft EIS indicates only minor changes to the pipeline in Montana and South Dakota, where improvements have been made according to comments made by landowner requests to adjust the route across their property [4]. However, major changes have been made to the pipeline in the state of Nebrasks in order to avoid the Nebraska Sand Hills region. This region has been identified by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) as a sensitive area. The proposed project pipeline route also avoids other areas in Keya Paha county identified by the NDEQ as having soil and topographic characteristics similar to the Sand Hills [4]. The pipeline also avoids wellhead protection areas for the villages of Clark and Western [4]. However, the pipeline does not avoid the Ogallala aquifer and therefore the most significant environmental risk remains. The huge area of the Ogallala aquifer is shown in the following image.

(Ogallala Aquifer, 2013)

[5] (Ogallala Aquifer, 2013)

With TransCanada’s awful oil spill history, it is necessary that the best available technologies are used in order to assure that the Ogallala aquifer is not contaminated and even then, there is no guarantee. The US government must ensure that these measurements are taken in order to protect their natural resources.  These measurements must be a requirement in order for the Keystone XL pipeline permit to be approved. The benefits accrued from the Keystone XL project are not worth compromising the quality of the water in the Ogallala aquifer.

[6] (Obermeyer, 2011)

[6] (Obermeyer, 2011)



[1] Romm, J. & Lacey, S. (2012, January 18). Breaking: Obama denies Keystone XL permit, but allows TransCanada to reapply with alternate pipeline route. Climate Progress. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/01/18/406090/obama-to-deny-keystone-xl-permit-transcanada-reapply-with-alternate-pipeline-route/?mobile=nc

[2] Financial Post. (2010, November 10). Things You Always Wanted to Know About Keystone XL. Retrieved from http://business.financialpost.com/2011/11/10/things-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-keystone-but-were-afraid-to-ask/?__lsa=302a-f3fe

[3] Lacey, S. (2011, August 17). After 12 oil spills in one year, TransCanada says proposed Keystone XL pipeline will be safest in US. Climate Progress. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/08/17/297576/oil-spills-transcanada-keystone-xl-pipeline/

[4] ERM (Environmental Resources Management). (2013) Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement. Washington, DC: Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

[5] Ogallala Aquifer. (2013). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer

[6] Obermeyer, N. (2011, June 10). No respect. Retrieved from http://nealo.com/2011/06/


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