Thursday, May 13, 2010

Oil and water

If the mysteries of the Great Plains have a heartland, it is the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The Sand Hills stretch two hundred miles east to west, from the valley of the North Platte in the south to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota in the north. They are one of the great deserts of the world, an American Rub al Khali or Gobi. A desert in disguise: walk out of Valentine, Cody, Whiteclay, Chadron—one of those ephemeral little Sand Hills cow towns whose main street looks like a painted stage set with nothing behind it—and dig. Beneath the brittle grass and the thin smoke of soil, you hit sand; you are standing in a sea of dunes. And if you dig deep enough, you will come to an even stranger realm: a vast ancient subterranean ocean, the 156,000-square-mile Ogallala Aquifer, with more water in it than Lake Huron. A sea inside a desert wrapped in a green prairie.

—Rob Schultheis, The Hidden West

If you're anything like me, a figure like 156,000 square miles is a bit abstract, Lake Huron hard to picture out of context. Take a quick look at the map and then come back here.

Okay, now another quote from The Hidden West:

The last time Martha went home to visit, she found her father sitting at his desk with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's and a mess of farm journals and scientific reports. It's all over, he told her. Sand Hills cattle ranching's dead. We've got maybe thirty years left, and then the whole business is going to dry up and blow away; from Denver to the hundredth meridian, this country's gonna look like Afghanistan. The dirt farmer and the rancher's gonna be as gone as fifty million buffalo, as dead as Crazy Horse, as rare as a set of jackalope antlers.

Martha Schaller's father was contemplating the drying up of the Ogallala Aquifer through overuse, the mining of fossil water for thirsty crops like corn and lawn grasses. But overuse isn't the only thing threatening the aquifer, and thereby the economic and ecological underpinnings of this region.

TransCanada has proposed to build a pipeline (Keystone XL) through the Great Plains: a 36-inch crude-oil pipe running from Hardisty, Alberta, to the Texas Gulf Coast. Nebraska would be a 254-mile link in the project. The draft environmental impact statement has been completed; the public comment period closes in mid-June and will be followed soon thereafter by the final EIS. Until recently, this looked like a done deal. But if there's an upside to BP's recent/ongoing Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, it's that people are taking a closer look at safety issues.

At a recent meeting in York, Nebraska—click here for the Lincoln Journal Star's article—attendance was up compared to a previous meeting in Fairbury, presumably because of growing awareness of the situation in the Gulf. "For the life of me," said one landowner, "I can't see how they can even consider this pipeline and take the chance of it ruining the groundwater in Nebraska."

Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, those with a financial stake in the project—and here I'm going to include politicians, who typically have a tough time saying "no" to projects that stand to bring in revenue—are viewing things much more rosily:

"TransCanada agrees absolutely that it's a very critical resource for the state of Nebraska. And that's why we're taking steps to make sure we don't jeopardize it with this pipeline." —TransCanada official

"I think TransCanada is second to none on safety and environment." —union representative

"I think they're a good company. I trust them to do the job." —county commissioner

"I'd say I'm reasonably comfortable." —state senator

The obvious problem here is that plenty of people had confidence in BP and its partners in the Gulf before things went catastrophically wrong, just as plenty of people trusted Exxon before the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. Now, I'm willing to grant that everyone involved in Keystone XL is well-intentioned, that TransCanada's surveyors and engineers and technicians are competent, that in all likelihood nothing will go wrong. But the nature of the petroleum industry is that no one—no engineer, no corporate executive, and certainly no politician—can guarantee nothing will go wrong. [Link to an (incomplete) list of oil spills.] And the consequences of failure in this environment, even if the risk of failure is small, are simply too high.

If oil gets into the Ogallala Aquifer, there will be no volunteers cleaning the beaches of tar balls, no Coast Guard to deploy oil-containment booms, no practical recourse at all that we can count on—because the whole thing is underground. TransCanada will do its best to act (in public) like a good corporate citizen while (behind the scenes) seeking to limit its financial liability. Politicians will point fingers, convene hearings, and inevitably someone will describe the breach as "unforeseeable". And although everyone will agree in hindsight that the economic benefits of Keystone XL were not worth it, it will be too late: "From Denver to the hundredth meridian, this country's gonna look like Afghanistan."

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