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.