Nebraska's Sand Hills become sand trap for Keystone XL pipeline
The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline was big news across the country this week, with the Obama administration announcing that it was delaying a decision on the controversial project. But nowhere was the news bigger than in Nebraska.
The state has, in effect, turned into a massive prairie sand trap for the $7-billion project.
Make that sand hills.
The Nebraska Sand Hills are the rolling, grass-covered dunes that form a thin, porous layer atop the Ogallala aquifer in north-central Nebraska -- where a stubborn bunch of ranchers has vociferously insisted it would be foolhardy to build an oil pipeline.
Over the last year, the ranchers have signed petitions, testified at public hearings, and driven officials from the U.S. State Department, which will decide on a permit for the pipeline, out across the Sand Hills in their pickup trucks.
They've dug holes in the sandy prairie grass and pointed to the good, clean water flowing just inches below the surface. And they've held cups under burbling artesian wells on their cattle ranges and offered them to visiting reporters to drink.
Still, when the decision was announced in Washington, D.C., Thursday to hold off on permitting the pipeline until a route around the Sand Hills can be studied, the celebration was tinged first with a hearty dose of Nebraskan skepticism.
"Does it really talk about not going in the Sand Hills?" Atkinson, Neb., land owner Todd Cone asked cautiously when a reporter called.
Cone politely asked that the entire text of the State Department announcement be read to him over the phone. Then he measured his words. "I guess there's justice in America," he said finally.
Cone said he and his neighbors have tried to make it clear that they aren't opposed to the pipeline; it would bring jobs and new oil supplies, and they wouldn't want to argue against either one. But they say it should go anywhere but where the highly permeable Sand Hills roll across the aquifer, a massive subterranean waterway that underlies 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.
"I own a small water well service here, and I guess I know how valuable our water is," Cone said. "The only two natural resources we have in Nebraska is water and wind. And if we lose our water here, if we have a spill here, all the experts in the world can try to tell you there's never going to be a major plume of carcinogens in the water.
"But they vouched for the space shuttle, too. And every once in a while, one of them blows up."
In the announcement, the State Department said that "particularly given the concentration of concerns regarding the environmental sensitivities of the current proposed route through the Sand Hills area of Nebraska," an "in-depth assessment" of "potential alternative routes" in Nebraska will be undertaken.
The pipeline builder, TransCanada Corp., emphasized that proceeding with the project quickly -- one way or another -- is crucial to U.S. refineries faced with dwindling supplies of heavy crude from Venezuela and Mexico.
"This project is too important to the U.S. economy, the Canadian economy and the national interest of the United States for it not to proceed," TransCanada president Russ Girling said in a statement.
He said the company already has conducted studies of eight potential pipeline routes through Nebraska, including one that avoids the Sand Hills and the Ogallala aquifer altogether and six that minimize mileage through the Sand Hills. "TransCanada hopes this work will serve as a starting point for the additional review and help expedite the review process," Girling said.
Now, the question is what role Nebraska state lawmakers will play in that. A special session of the state Legislature convened last week to consider passing laws that would give the state more regulatory authority over the pipeline.
Whether that effort will continue, or be suspended until the Legislature's next regular session in January, will be decided over the weekend, Gov. Dave Heineman told reporters.
"All of us were surprised by this announcement today, so we need a little time to think about it," he said at a news conference. "This is an exceptional moment for Nebraska," the governor added. "Concerns from Nebraskans have been heard."
Cone said he and his fellow ranchers tried to make it clear last week when they testified before the Legislature that residents of the remote, sparsely populated Sand Hills country have no intention of standing by quietly as a pipeline gets built.
"I told our senators, if this pipeline goes through, we've got people that have put money together, and we're going to have a monument out there next to a pump station, and it's going to be made out of concrete," Cone said.
"And it'll have a big plaque with all the senators' names telling how they voted, the ones who were for it and the ones who were against it, so that people 100 years from now can tell who screwed this water up."
-- Kim Murphy
Photo: Rancher Todd Cone digs a shallow hole through the prairie grass in the Nebraska Sand Hills to expose groundwater just inches below the surface. Credit: Kim Murphy / Los Angeles Times