One issue that seems to take the back burner to the emissions cause by the pipeline is the threat to water quality along the conduits route.The pipeline, which would transport the tar sands material to refineries near Houston, would cross one of America’s largest underground water reserves, the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches across 174,000 square miles and underlies eight Great Plains states. To remove the thick black oil from the sand, they heat it using natural gas and wash it using huge amounts of freshwater. In this process, they create toxic lakes large enough to be visible from space. In order to produce one barrel of tar sands they contaminate two to four barrels of freshwater to separate the oil from the sand.
The U.S. State Department said in an environmental review that the project would have “no significant impacts to most resources” during “normal operation.” But the big worry is what happens if those normal operations fail.
TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline, already runs one pipeline. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups have argued that the pipelines are dangerous because they carry a watered-down version of the sticky tar sands deposits known as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit.” Dilbit bears hazardous chemicals including cancer .causing benzene and toxic heavy metals such as arsenic. Because it also contains particles of sand, the environmental groups say, dilbit is much more corrosive than oil alone, making it more likely to cause leaks.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a co-author of a recent report by the Defense Council, said that piping dilbit is “like sandblasting the inside of the pipe,” making pipes 16 times more likely to leak than when they are carrying regular crude oil.
Keystone XL would pass over the heart of the aquifer, cutting through the Sand Hills of Nebraska, a region of grass-covered dunes that contains one of the largest wetlands ecosystems in the United States. The regions ground acts as a thick sponge, allowing oil to soak into the aquifer more easily than it would if the soil were more solid.
If a spill were to occur it would happen fast, and given that the pipeline would be buried in trench, it would make it very difficult to spot leaks.
The pipeline needs the approval of the U.S. State Department in order to more forward. “I am not opposed to pipelines in Nebraska,” U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, said in a statement. But he faults the environmental review and wants the U.S. government to explore other options. “We have only one Ogallala Aquifer,” he said, “and we must take seriously our obligation to protect it.”