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Keystone XL: The Sandhills Problem

Why Nebraska is "Ground Zero" in the Keystone XL Pipeline debate.
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Previously: How Much Greenhouse Gas?

Early on, Nebraska was identified by pipeline-watchers as “Ground Zero in the Pipeline Fight”—and it's an accurate label. Indeed, the rejection of the pipeline as proposed was to some extent due to the route it would take through Nebraska.

Nebaska sits atop the vast Ogallala Aquifer, a reserve of water that is something like an underground lake. According to a fact sheet at the USGS, "about 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States overlies this aquifer system, which yields about 30 percent of the Nation's ground water used for irrigation. In addition, the aquifer system provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundary." The aquifer stis below portions of eight U.S. states, but the lion's share (two-thirds) and its deepest parts are beneath Nebraska, particularly a region in north-central Nebraska known as the Sandhills. A 92-mile stretch of the proposed pipeline would have passed through the Sandhills.

In the fall, anti-pipeline protests in the Sandhills grew contentious. At a U.S. State Department hearing held in a gymnasium in Atkinson, David Hutchinson, an organic rancher from Rose, Neb., who raises beef, buffalo, goats, potatoes and squash, testified that "A leak in the Keystone pipeline could conceivably contaminate the entire Ogallala Aquifer, in turn, disrupting the agricultural economy of Nebraska." He also said that the proximity of the Aquifer water to the surface in the sandhills region, which is dotted with springs and artisanal wells, is another complicating factor. "The Sandhills are so fragile," said rancher Sue Mitchell. "One little spill of oil can ruin all the water."

Tribal leaders also weighed in at the Atkinson event. According to a story by the Lincoln Journal Star, Mitch Parker of the Omaha tribe spoke in support of the pipeline, praising TransCanada's conduct during the building of the first Keystone pipeline (which passes through eastern Nebraska, clear of the sandhills). "TransCanada respects native culture," Parker said, "and they consulted our historic preservation office in all their plans." The Winnebago Tribe's Frank LaMere disagreed. "I oppose [the Keystone XL pipeline] for many reasons," LaMere said, "not the least of which is the fact that to our people, water is life and that this project would jeopardize our water, hence, our very existence."

The battle lines drawn at the Atkinson hearing were stark, and emblematic of the larger ideas at issue: Labor unions, in support of the pipeline because they feel it would bring jobs to the region, wore orange; they were vastly outnumbered by the opposition, who dressed in red, the color of the state's beloved University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. And the discussion extended beyond the Sandhills. The University of Nebraska Athletics Department scotched a sponsorship deal with TransCanada, the company seeking to build Keystone XL, after fans booed an advertisement shown at a home football game. The video clip dubbed Keystone XL the "Husker Pipeline." The Lincoln Journal-Star quoted Cornhuskers fan Allen Schreiber, who saw the video at a football game just a week after he had participated in protests in front of the White House: "To me, that was just a real strong gut punch as a Nebraskan."

In his statement rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama said he was doing so out of concern for "the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment." So the sticking point is the Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer, but it's not clear what will happen next. The administration invited TransCanada to submit a revised proposal, which the company said it would do, but some pipeline advocates feel that if the President really wanted to make the pipeline happen, he would have acted differently. For instance, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman suggested a conditional approval that would have enabled TransCanada to start the project immediately while the State Department and TransCanada worked on the details of the Nebraska re-route.