Farm Progress

In August, the Nebraska Public Service Commission has scheduled public hearings on the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Tyler Harris, Editor

June 27, 2017

5 Min Read
ONGOING ISSUE: A current proposed route of the pipeline was updated to largely avoid the Sandhills. Gov. Dave Heineman approved the plan in 2013. However, the 2012 amendment that gave pipeline companies the option to apply to the Public Service Commission or the governor for a pipeline permit has been challenged in the Nebraska Supreme Court.algarsr/istock/thinkstock

Oil pipelines have gripped headlines over the last couple years, namely the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline. That includes here in Nebraska, where the Keystone XL is set to pass through if the current route is approved.

TransCanada, the company building the Keystone XL pipeline, has applied for a permit from the Nebraska Public Service Commission. On Aug. 7-11, the Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC) has scheduled public hearings on the proposed route, and the commission has until Nov. 23 to determine whether or not to approve the proposed route, which stretches from Jefferson County to Keya Paha County.

With that in mind, here are six things to know about the current proposed Keystone XL pipeline route:

1. The pipeline route has been updated to avoid the Sandhills. The original pipeline route was intended to go through the Sandhills, but the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality issued a report asking TransCanada to move the right of way out of the Sandhills to avoid the Ogallala Aquifer. The current pipeline route, which has been updated to avoid the Sandhills, has already been approved once by Gov. Dave Heineman in 2013.

"This is ground which has been plowed at least a couple of times," says David Aiken, University of Nebraska Extension water and agricultural law specialist. "So far, there haven't been any surprises, and I don't expect that there will be."

2. TransCanada is likely taking the safe route in applying through PSC. LB1161, the 2012 amendment that gave pipeline companies the option to apply either to the Nebraska PSC or to the governor for a pipeline permit, has been challenged in court by pipeline opponents on the basis that under the Nebraska constitution, only the PSC or the Unicameral could regulate oil pipelines. A majority of the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled the 2012 law unconstitutional in 2015, but it wasn't the supermajority needed to officially label the law unconstitutional.

"I think the pipeline company is appropriately afraid that if they go through the governor approval route again, they would be back in court and the supermajority would say it's unconstitutional," says Aiken.

3. Even after being rerouted, the pipeline is still controversial. There is still opposition to tar sand oil production in general. "The argument is that with fracking, we've increased oil production in the U.S., and as long as fracking is done carefully, there's much smaller environmental footprint than with tar sands," Aiken says. "This is strategically a crucial piece. If companies can't export or move tar sands to the Gulf where it can be refined for export, that diminishes the economic prospects for the whole tar sand project. If the green opposition were able to prevent a pipeline from being developed, this would really stall that tar sand development and maybe even put it on hold."

4. Easements for condemnation have been paid for in Nebraska. Most of the landowners along the route have signed on with easements. "Well over 90% of the landowners along the proposed route have signed on in terms of the right-of-way," Aiken says. "The holdout is significant; but it's 10%, so it's definitely the minority."

5. Tar sand doesn't move very fast. When it comes to oil from Canada, the product being moved is often tar sand or diluted bitumen, an asphalt-like substance that has a viscosity of over 1 million times that of water — that is to say, it doesn't flow very fast. Bitumen is typically diluted with a hydrocarbon like condensate to move faster.

Meanwhile, due to its hydrology of moving through the subsurface, groundwater doesn't flow very quickly, and any oil spilled into a groundwater source like an aquifer would move very slowly.

"We're talking feet per year. It's even slower when you have a fluid that doesn't mix with water,  and oil and water don't mix well. Movement becomes very slow," says Steven Sibray, geoscientist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, who co-authored a recent Extension publication on pipeline safety. "I think there's a misconception in the public to a certain extent that if there's a leak, it will be catastrophic to the whole aquifer, which is not the case. The aquifer is not an underground lake or stream."

6. Pipeline safety has improved over the years. While the University represents a neutral perspective of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Sibray, notes that in general, oil pipelines have greatly improved in terms of safety and spills prevention. A 2009 study showed that there was an 80% reduction in oil spilled by pipelines in coastal and inland areas between 1969 and 2007.

Still, spills can happen. One of the most expensive spill cleanups in recent history was near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. In this case, diluted bitumen leaked near a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The spill occurred on a hot summer day, the condensate evaporated off, and the bitumen sank to the bottom of the tributary. EPA then required the pipeline company to dredge the stream to remove the bitumen.

"In the very early days, the pipelines were made out of anything — from hollowed out tree logs to cast iron. They've improved drastically with steel and with epoxy coatings. Leak detection systems have become more sophisticated. Even with sophisticated leak detection systems, however, sometimes I think humans are still an important part of locating leaks," Sibray says. "Things have improved."

"If we're not building new pipelines and/or replacing old ones, then we’re making the environmental and human safety situation worse, rather than making it better," adds Doug Hallum, Extension survey hydrogeologist. "We demand oil as a society, so it's going to be delivered by one means or another. If you don't deliver it in updated modern pipelines, you can introduce a whole array of new risks when delivering by rail or by old pipeline."



About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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