TransCanada this week submitted a new proposal for the northern section of its on-again, off-again Keystone XL pipeline, after revising the route to bypass Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sandhills region and underlying Ogallala Aquifer.
The new route, made public on Thursday, adds about 100 miles to the original 1,700-mile project, and would link Canada’s Alberta tar sands to the southern section of the pipeline, which begins in Cushing, Oklahoma. That section, which extends southward to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, was approved by U.S. President Obama last month.
TransCanada has not yet submitted its latest proposal for federal review. However, if Nebraska approves the new route on the grounds that its environmental objections have been resolved, pipeline opponents and the Obama administration will have lost perhaps their most potent justification for withholding federal approval.
Despite its classification as a semi-arid region, the Sandhills is the largest and one of the most complex wetland ecosystems in the U.S. Never having been plowed, more than 85% of the area is intact, natural habitat. The region is home to a broad diversity of plant and animal species — many of which are native — and a regular stop for migratory birds.
Most importantly, the Sandhills lies above – and feeds — one of largest, freshwater aquifers in the world, known as the Ogallala. With an area of approximately 174,000 sq.mi. (450,000 km.sq.), the Ogallala stretches across portions of eight states and supplies about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the U.S. More than 80% of those living within its boundaries rely upon the aquifer for drinking water.
Even without the threat of oil spills, the Ogallala is critically stressed. Since the 1950s, when new technology made possible the tapping of the aquifer, water has been withdrawn much more rapidly than it can be replenished. By some projections, it could run dry in 25 years.
Depletion issues aside, much of the opposition to the pipeline in Nebraska came from ranchers and farmers whose concern was that the project would further damage the aquifer. Without their opposition, Nebraska may well approve the new route, making it difficult to see how the pipeline can be stopped given the current economic and political climate.
Spiking fuel costs and a lagging economy have left an anxious public susceptible to claims that the pipeline will lower U.S. oil prices and create “hundreds of thousands” of jobs — despite the fact that it will do neither.
A Gallup poll conducted last month showed overall support for the Keystone XL outweighing opposition 57% to 29%. While support runs highest among Republicans (81%), a plurality in Obama’s own Democratic party favor the project (44%-38%).
With an election only 6 months away, those kinds of numbers are going to be almost impossible to ignore.