Senator Johanns (R-NE) Speaks Out Against Tar Sands Pipeline

Last Thursday, October 14, Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska (formerly President Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture) sent a letter to Hillary Clinton expressing his concern about the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline is proposed to cross Nebraska’s delicate Sandhills ecosystem and – buried 4 to 6 feet below the surface – to come in direct contact with the vast Ogallala Aquifer, the source of drinking, irrigation and livestock water for more than 10 million people on the Great Plains.

Johanns reminds Clinton and the State Department that there is a real risk, acknowledged in the Environmental Impact Statement, that “crude oil could migrate into subsurface aquifers and into areas where these aquifers are used for water supplies.” For Nebraska, this outcome would be catastrophic. Johanns says that he is “disturbed by the fact that the DEIS contains no substantial discussion of a route that would run parallel to the existing Keystone pipeline route from Steele City, Nebraska, north to the U.S. border in Cavalier County, North Dakota.” This route would be far shorter (at least on the U.S. side) and entail far less environmental impact since the route has already been recently disturbed. It would also avoid the Sandhills.

Johanns also asks that the scope of the EIS be broadened to consider border crossings other than Port Morgan, Montana. “It would be of considerable concern to me,” Johanns adds, “if U.S. consideration of the potential routes within our own country for a proposed pipeline has been limited by the terms of a permit previously issued by another country.”

The senator concludes by saying: “…U.S. law assigns to the Department of State the responsibility of ensuring the impacts and alternatives to this proposed pipeline have been thoroughly examined and assessed. At this time – and until my questions are answered – I am concerned that the contents of the DEIS do not sufficiently meet this responsibility.”

For those who aren’t familiar with the Sandhills, you need to know that this is a truly extraordinary ecosystem. They span almost 20,000 square miles (1/4 the area of Nebraska) in the largest sand dune formation in the western hemisphere. The dunes reach up to 400 feet in height and are stabilized by fragile grasslands, highly susceptible to erosion. Local ranchers manage the Sandhills carefully to avoid reversion to desert.

The Sandhills rest on the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifers in the world, with a billion acre-feet of ground water that comes above the surface at the base of many dunes. This region of dry and sandy grassland dunes is therefore also critical habitat for an astoundingly diverse population of plants and animals that rely on its many thousands of lakes and wetlands.
While drafting comments on the DEIS, Plains Justice contacted the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and asked for help analyzing the potential impact of the pipeline on the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer. Dr. James Stubbendieck, Director of the Center, kindly provided an assessment that is quoted in the comments submitted jointly by Plains Justice, Friends of the Niobrara, Honor the Earth, Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, Nebraska Chapter of Sierra Club, Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Northern Plains Resource Council, Prairie Hills Audubon Society, Wachiska Audubon Society, and Western Nebraska Resources Council.
Stubbendieck comments at one point: “For the Sand Hills region, certain specifics are lacking or inappropriate to the unique soil conditions. There is little topsoil development in this area, so stockpiling it would be of little value on the uplands. Revegetation methods specific to the Sand Hills are inadequate.  Some are untested in the region (such as imprinting the soil). Wind erosion is a major concern that remains unaddressed.”
It’s remarkable how quickly Nebraskans get their backs up when something threatens the Sandhills or the Ogallala Aquifer. Keystone XL threatens both.
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