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February 17, 2011

New Report Highlights Tar Sands Pipeline Spill Risks

The Sierra Club and a coalition of environmental groups released a new report this week about highlighting the elevated risk of pipeline spills throughout the nation as a result of increasing imports of dangerous tar sands oil.

The report, "Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks" (PDF), shines a light on the dangers of transporting diluted bitumen, or tar sands crude. Because it is significantly more acidic and corrosive than standard oil, and requires increased heat and pressure to move through pipelines, tar sands crude poses new risks to communities along pipeline routes.

Ken Winston of the Nebraska Sierra Club explains more about the risks of tar sands pipelines:

This report provides evidence that a tar sands pipeline is 16 times more likely to leak than an ordinary crude oil pipeline. This represents an unacceptable risk to America's most valuable resource, the Ogallala aquifer.

Let me explain. Water is fundamental for all life. Humans need it for sustenance and sanitation. It is a necessary ingredient for production of food, fiber and most forms of energy. It will become increasingly more valuable as the population of the planet grows.

The Ogallala is the largest freshwater aquifer in the Western Hemisphere. The greatest concentration of water is in Nebraska's Sandhills. The level of saturation of the aquifer is over one thousand feet in much of the Sandhills, compared to a depth of less than fifty feet in many other areas. It provides 80 % of the drinking water in the region as well as providing 30 per cent of the nation's groundwater for irrigation. Governor Heineman has called it the lifeblood of agriculture, Nebraska’s number one industry.

In contrast the oil that these pipelines will transmit is a toxic substance. The process to obtain oil from tar sands destroys every living thing in its path.

The aquifer in the Sandhills is particularly vulnerable. Experts have stated that is very likely that an oil leak in the Sandhills area would reach the aquifer because "shallow water tables are common and soils are typically sandy." They have also noted that the aquifer in this area often discharges to the surface and that it would be difficult to prevent pollution in these areas from reaching the surface. If this occurred it is likely there would be far wider dispersion of the pollution than a typical leak into an aquifer. TransCanada plans to run its tar sands pipeline through an area of the Sandhills where the water table is very shallow and through areas where the aquifer discharges back to the surface.

Several of Nebraska's elected leaders have raised concerns about the proposed pipeline. Senator Mike Johanns has asked that the pipeline be moved away from the most vulnerable parts of the aquifer. He has also requested a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Senator Ben Nelson also stated the need to protect the Ogallala aquifer and requested a thorough environmental review as well as comments by relevant state agencies.

The Nebraska Sierra Club wishes to recognize the leadership of Senator Johanns and Senator Nelson on this issue. 21 Nebraska State Senators sent a letter to Secretary Clinton asking that she follow the requests of Senators Nelson and Johanns. Nebraska state senators have also introduced legislation asking for reasonable regulation of the proposed pipeline.

TransCanada has responded like a used car salesman trying to close the deal before the unsuspecting customer discovers the defects in their product. They have rejected suggestions that the pipeline be moved. They have rejected further studies of potential impacts. They have rejected a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.
They have opposed any regulation by the State of Nebraska. We believe the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is like sending a used car to a mechanic to get it checked out. This report is like a warning light on that used car that TransCanada wants to sell us. We need to heed this warning light.

This report has revealed new issues that need to be thoroughly examined. We cannot afford to put our aquifer at risk. The more we look at the proposed pipeline, the more problems we see. In the language of used cars, TransCanada is trying to sell us a lemon.
We are asking for the following:
  • A Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement as requested by Senator Mike Johanns.
  • Examination of an alternative route for the pipeline as requested by Senator Mike Johanns.
  • A thorough environmental review as requested by Senator Ben Nelson.

One of the findings of the Gulf Oil Commission was that the entire problem could have been prevented by proper oversight. We need every aspect of this issue to be thoroughly examined in order to prevent this unacceptable risk to America's most valuable resource, the Ogallala aquifer.


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