The Canadian company TransCanada wants to build a 1,702-mile pipeline that will pass through Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer as it transports heavy crude oil from tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline say it will improve U.S. energy security and decrease reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Opponents say that pipelines transporting oil sands crude raise the risk of spills and damage to aquifers and waterways, while extracting and processing the thick oil increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that on a “well-to-tank” basis the heavy crude extracted is 82 percent more carbon intensive than conventional oil. That estimate sits in a middle ground between widely varying claims offered by industry and environmentalists.
Since the pipeline will cross an international border, TransCanada must get a presidential permit from the State Department before it can build and operate the line. In July 2010, the EPA gave the State Department’s first draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the project the lowest possible grade of “inadequate,” creating an inter-agency tussle that has delayed the permit decision. Although a second draft EIS did better, the EPA said more analysis was still needed to fully evaluate the environmental risks. The State Department’s final environmental review of Keystone XL is expected this month.
The Ogallala aquifer has emerged as an important point in the debate. In June, two scientists from Nebraska called for a special study to determine how an oil spill would affect it, and Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska has asked the State Department to consider an alternate, more easterly route that would avoid it. Twenty scientists from top research institutions recently signed a letter urging President Obama not to approve the pipeline because of environmental concerns.