Oil pipeline safety analyzed

Safety precautions, soil erosion and the Ogallala Aquifer were concerns discussed at a Dec. 1 Natural Resources Committee hearing on a proposed oil pipeline in Nebraska.

The committee convened as directed by LR435, introduced by Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas. The resolution called for an interim study of issues raised during the consideration of a bill introduced last session that would have regulated interstate pipelines. At the previous hearing, many testifiers shared concerns regarding potential contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer by the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.

Slated for construction in Nebraska in 2011, the 1,661-mile oil pipeline will connect Canadian crude oil suppliers to Texas refineries. The pipeline will run through Boone, Fillmore, Garfield, Greeley, Hamilton, Holt, Jefferson, Keya Paha, Merrick, Nance, Rock, Saline, Wheeler and York counties.

During the hearing, Robert Jones, vice president of TransCanada, said the project would benefit the state’s economy. The $1.3 billion the company invests in the Nebraska portion of the pipeline will provide $468 million in business activity, he said, as well as $161.3 million in tax revenues.

Installation of the pipeline poses little risk to the state, he said, adding that the company has increased safety measures. Leaks from hazardous liquid pipelines are rare and small, Jones said, while much of the aquifer is protected by confining soil layers.

“Spills that do contact ground water do not migrate great distances,” Jones said. “This is localized. We are talking tens and hundreds of feet, nothing more than that.”

Jim Goeke, a hydrologist in the Conservation and Survey Division of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, said a leak of the Keystone XL pipeline would not affect the majority of the Ogallala Aquifer. He said Nebraska’s aquifer system is not akin to an underground lake, where a spill in one location can contaminate the whole body. Rather, the contaminants would move in the prevailing direction of the aquifer.

“Those who think that a leaking pipeline will destroy the aquifer in Nebraska need to understand that it would be localized,” Goeke said, adding that the damage would probably be confined to a few hundred feet from the pipeline.

The pipeline will have a comprehensive leak detection system able to identify leaks of 1-2 percent, Jones said. Significant leaks will be automatically detected, he said, prompting a shutdown of the oil pumped through the pipe. The company will respond to a leak within six hours, he said.

Dr. John Gates, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at UNL, said a useful tool for modeling a potential spill by the Keystone XL pipeline is a study of an oil spill that contaminated an aquifer near Bemidji, Minn., 30 years ago. Gates said oil reaching the water table tended to stay above the water due to its lower density. In addition, the oil plume in Minnesota moved at half the velocity of groundwater flows, he said, which limited the spill’s capacity for damage. However, if oil were released into groundwater close to surface water, Gates said, remediation would be difficult.

Doug Cobb of Holt County said he was concerned about the abandonment of pipelines. He said no state regulations exist that require companies to decommission unused pipelines. He urged the committee to consider legislation requiring pipeline companies to remove abandoned pipelines with full reclamation and surrender their easements back to landowners, as well bonding requirements for pipeline companies to ensure resources are set aside to do so. Oklahoma has passed such legislation, he said.

Further, he said, current state law offers no liability protection to landowners with pipeline easements. Legislation should be enacted to hold landowners harmless for damage to pipelines, except that which is caused by malice or negligence, he said.

Soil erosion caused by pipeline trenching was a concern voiced by Teri Taylor, a rancher who owns property on the pipeline’s proposed route through Rock, Keya Paha and Holt counties.

“The very thought of this type of soil being laid open to accommodate a 36-inch pipeline … is of great concern to us as landowners,” Taylor said.

Dr. Dave Wedin of the UNL School of Natural Resources observed such erosion during a study to determine the role of grasslands in stabilizing dunes. He said areas in which the soil is disturbed in the Sandhills experience much greater erosion, so any planned digging should include aggressive erosion control measures.

The committee will release a report of its findings at the conclusion of the study.

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