Farms across the Great Plains are in the path of a monster: the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: David Clow

The other morning I took a call, like so many other calls I’ve taken over the last four years, from another Dakota farmer wondering how his land may be affected by the Keystone XL pipeline. He had a notice of condemnation and interrogatories from TransCanada in hand, and I wish I’d had better news for him. He’s in the path of a monster. Keystone XL will be a 36-inch-diameter pipeline, carrying nine times the volume of the Silvertip line that just vomited 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone River. It will cross some of the most isolated places in the high plains, cutting through the ecologically fragile Nebraska Sandhills and the irreplaceable Ogallala aquifer.

Keystone XL won’t carry “light, sweet” crude, which floats on top of water and can be mopped up with absorbent booms. Bitumen — a tarlike substance mined from the Alberta tar sands, chemically diluted, and heated to improve flow — will travel at high pressure across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to Gulf Coast refineries. If and when it leaks into water bodies, this product will sink. To judge the risk of that happening, it helps to know that the first piece of the Keystone system, TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline that crosses the eastern Dakotas, has sprung a dozen leaks in its first year of operation.

Our nonprofit, Plains Justice, has been following this unfolding mess since we took the first calls about Keystone I from North Dakota landowners in 2007. They were getting bullying letters from TransCanada insisting that they sign pipeline easements immediately or see their land condemned. Appeals to state regulators in North and South Dakota fell on deaf ears. In the Dakotas, the oil industry has near-monolithic political power and hires lawyers in bulk. There was no resisting its plans for a pipeline across farms, tribal ancestral homelands, and even the drinking water catchment area for the city of Fargo, which only became aware of the risk after state regulators had signed off on the project.

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Plains Justice lawyers have represented landowners and small, instate nonprofits asking hard questions about the risks of Keystone I and Keystone XL through state and federal siting proceedings for the last several years. We obtained the first scientific analysis of risks to the Sandhills and Ogallala aquifer and submitted it as part of comments to the U.S. Department of State on the draft environmental impact statement, which all but ignored these impacts. In 2010, we published two deeply researched reports [PDF], based on a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, about the safety of steel and emergency response planning for Keystone I. We turned up alarming conclusions:

  • Federal regulations for crude oil pipeline response plans are much weaker than regulations for other potential polluters, such as oil tankers and oil refineries;
  • In calculating its worst-case spill scenarios, TransCanada does not consider the possible impacts of operator error during use of its complex pipeline control systems, and therefore underestimates worst-case spill amounts;
  • For on-water spills, TransCanada underestimates needed shoreline cleanup equipment capacity by 50 percent;
  • Equipment allocated for potential spills in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska is completely inadequate to the scale of spill risk;
  • Designated responders lack capacity to move adequate amounts of equipment to major rivers put at risk by the Keystone Pipeline System fast enough to protect them. Such rivers include the Missouri River at both the Fort Peck Dam and at Yankton, S.D., the Yellowstone River at Miles City, Mont., the Niobrara and Platte Rivers in Nebraska, and more;
  • In much of the northern Great Plains, local businesses do not have the ability to shelter and feed thousands of workers at short notice, with the result that TransCanada and its contractors would be responsible not only for responding to an oil spill, but for caring for the needs of thousands of spill responders far from large commercial supply networks. Should a spill happen during harsh winter conditions, these logistical problems could turn into a nightmare.

The Yellowstone River spill, 1-20th the size of last year’s Enbridge pipeline spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, has attracted hundreds of spill-response workers to the Billings area. Fortunately, Billings is the largest city in Montana, and far enough from the booming oil, gas, and coal fields to the south and east to have significant available lodging. Many areas along the Keystone I and Keystone XL routes would be incapable of providing for a large spill response workforce without major, time-consuming shifts in infrastructure. There is no indication that TransCanada has plans in place for this kind of logistical effort.

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All the red flags flapping in the breeze have done little to drown out the sound of inevitability. Our own shoestring efforts have been defunded as the international anti-tar-sands campaign picks up momentum and the big green groups soak up available funding, so what little help existed for landowners is petering out.

The thing that always strikes me in conversations with farmers about the tar-sands pipelines is their use of this phrase: “They’re siting it across me.” Not “across my land,” but “across me,” because out on the harsh, beautiful plains that so many take for granted, people identify with their land like they identify with their own bodies. Most Americans have no experience with this level of connectedness. It’s something we’ve lost, and something many of us are trying to recover.

We have yet another chance to do the right thing where our priceless natural heritage is concerned. America, pay attention, will you?