Keystone XL pipeline and the Ogallala aquifer

The Keystone pipeline, which became operational in 2010, brings about 435,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Albert, Canada, to refineries in Texas.  Proposed additions to the pipeline would up that delivery to about 700,000 to 900,000 barrels per day.  One of the controversies is that part of the additions to the pipeline would pass over the northeast edge of the Ogallala aquifer in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. See map below. The concern is that possible oil spills from the pipeline could contaminate the aquifer.

Keystone-and-OgallalaWhile the concern over spills is something to consider, history shows that the pipeline is very safe.  According to TransCanada, the pipeline owner, there have been 14 spills since 2010, most of these occurred at pumping stations rather from a ruptured pipeline.  The typical spill was 5 gallons and the largest was 21,000 gallons but only 210 gallons escaped the plant.

But what if there is a major rupture where the pipeline passes over the aquifer?

Here is where geology comes in.  The geological situation is explained in detail by hydrogeologist Jim Goeke in an article in the (Nebraska) JournalStar. Dr. Geoke has had 40-years of experience with the aquifer.

The first thing you should realize is that the aquifer slopes from west to east, so only the downslope part of the aquifer would potentially be affected by a spill.

Secondly, the geologic nature of the aquifer, which at its shallowest is 300 feet below the surface, would tend to confine any spill to a very small area.

See also:

Fossil fuel resources of the United States

Shale oil and environmental concerns

A good reason to eliminate the Energy Department and its budget

Clean Coal: Boon or Boondoggle?


  1. Your posting has gross errors. Where in the world did you get your information??

    Please check your facts before publishing misinformation! I request that you remove your post, or at least correct it (though the corrections call into question your entire post).

    1. Keystone I began operation in June 2010 (not since 1977).

    2. There have been 14 spills since June 2010 (not since 1977).
    3. The largest was 21,000 gallons (not 400 gallons)

    Further, the EIS (prepared by a TransCananda contractor with whom the State Department agreed to have prepare the EIS) states that the spill occurred at pump stations, not along the “actual pipeline”. Does is really make a difference if the spill occurred at pump stations vs. 100 yards away on the “actual pipeline”? I don’t think the land or water is any less polluted from a spill at a pump station!

    Here is the information directly from the Environmental Impact Statement on the State Department’s website (click on the link for “Final Environmental Impact Statement”, then go to page ES-8):

    The existing Keystone Oil Pipeline System has
    experienced 14 spills since it began operation in June
    2010. The spills occurred at fittings and seals at
    pump or valve stations and did not involve the actual
    pipeline. Twelve of the spills remained entirely within
    the confines of the pump and valve stations. Of
    those spills, 7 were 10 gallons or less, 4 were 100
    gallons or less, 2 were between 400 and 500 gallons,
    and 1 was 21,000 gallons.

    The spill of 21,000 gallons occurred when a fitting
    failed at the Ludden, North Dakota pump station. As
    a result, PHMSA issued a Corrective Action Order,
    halting pipeline operation. Keystone was required to
    consult with PHMSA before returning the pipeline to
    operation. In that incident, most of the oil was
    contained within the pump station, but 210 gallons
    discharged from the pump station to adjacent land.
    The land affected was treated in place in compliance
    with North Dakota Department of Health land treatment guidelines.

    Again, please check your facts before publishing misinformation, especially when you present yourself as an “expert”.

    1. OK Sarah, my mistake. You are right about the date, apparently I confused the Keystone with the Alaska pipeline with started in 1977. Thanks for the correction. I’ve made the changes in the post. The spill data was from TransCanada the operator of the pipeline. In your comment I note that very little of the large spill got out into the environment, as I said. Perhaps I should have been more explicit.     Regardless of the error in date, the geological situation is unchanged and it would tend to limit any damage to the aquifer resulting from spills at pumping plants or a rupture of the pipeline itself. 

      For UDouche below, sadly, I’m not paid to write this blog.   

    2. Sarah sez:
      Does is really make a difference if the spill occurred at pump stations vs. 100 yards away on the “actual pipeline”? I don’t think the land or water is any less polluted from a spill at a pump station!
      Actually, it does make a difference.  At a pumping station, there are much more mitigation efforts in effect so that if there is a discharge, the oil is prevented from touching the environment.  Proof in the pudding is the large (21,000 gallon) spill above, where 20,500 gallons were contained.  The greater impact would happen on a rupture out in the wild. 
      So yes, it is important that the pipeline make doubly sure there is not a discharge on the open stretches, which it appears they have.


  3. You’re a rancher or farmer along the proposed route. Your livelihood depends on water. Then a foreign company comes along and uses eminent domain to force you to accept a pipeline on your land. A pipeline that may leak and poison the  only water source you can depend on directly below your property. Tell me how anyone proclaiming to be a conservative or libertarian would find this acceptable? It’s bad enough when Wal-Mart conspires with cities to condemn people’s houses so they can build shopping centers for their own profit. How would you feel if a Chinese company forced you to take payment for your property “for the greater good?”
    According to two of the best experts on the aquifer and how the mechanics work in the Nebraska Sand Hills (at the University of Nebraska,) the aquifer is still poorly understood. Poisoned water may end up in springs along the Niobrara, Loup rivers and into the Platte years after a leak. But I guess down in Tucson you know better than them.

    1. The geologist I linked to is Jim Goeke a research hydrogeologist and professor emeritus in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

  4. Thank you for at least partly correcting the misstatements you made in your original post. However…

    I hate to point out the obvious, but if a single spill was 21,000 gallons (though your initial posting incorrectly stated it was only 400 gallons), and there were 14 spills, how could the “average spill” have been 5 gallons? Again, your inaccuracy decreases your credibility.

    You state: “only the downslope part of the aquifer would potentially be affected by a spill”. I do not know if Goeke’s analysis is correct, BUT, even if it is, please look at the map you posted. Hundreds (thousands?) of square miles of the aquifer in Nebraska are to the east (“downslope”) of Keystone XL’s route. The irrigation and drinking water of ALL the people who live in those portions of Nebraska “would potentially be affected by a spill”. Would the government consider “potentially affecting” the livelihoods and drinking water of the people of Chicago, or New York, or heaven forbid, Washington?  No, but  they appear to be willing to sacrifice the economy and drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans…

    What about the stream crossings of the Niobrara, Platte, Loup, Blue and other Nebraska rivers? Are you aware of the spills in the Yellowstone and Kalamazoo Rivers? Nearly a million gallons of tarsands crude spilled in the Kalamazoo River last year, and cleanup still has not been completed.

    My guess is that since you originally posted that Keystone I had been in operation since 1977, that you are unaware of the Kalamazoo spill in 2010. Here’s an article about the spill, and one that includes a photo of the cleanup, taken in August of this year (over a year after the spill)

    Our pipeline regulations were admittedly not made with tar sands crude in mind. There are no separate regualtions for tar sands crude oil, though it is thicker, will run hotter, and is more corrosive than ‘ordinary’ crude oil.

    But, folks like you have your minds made up with apparently little research. I do have my mind made up as well, but I’ve done a lot of research. My roots are in Nebraska, and the pipeline will be crossing under land that has been in our extended family for generations. I was concerned when I first learned of the pipeline a couple of years ago. Rather than easing my mind, further research (and the horrible record of Keystone I – the only ‘new’ pipeline to be shut down by regulators) has only raised my level of concern.

  5. Sarah,
     Since your family holds land in the area, I can appreciate your concern.
    The word “average” was used in the sense of “typical.”
    If you have not read Geoke’s article, please do so. He seems to answer many of your concerns. Also, perhaps you could contact him for more details.
    My article did not address possible spills into rivers. That is another subject of concern. I see from the Kalamazoo story that the aquifer was protected from contamination from the 840,000 gallon spill into a river by the geological characteristics of the aquifer and overlying rock. Geoke makes the same argument for the Ogallala.
    Can your family and others get TransCanada or the government to indemnify you against loss that might result from a spill?

  6. Greetings, I have two concerns. 

    1) The oil does not have to reach the aquifer…the dissolution of benzene from dilbit and transport with percolating water can reach the aquifer. This has the potential to cause chronic benzene consumption…and hence, cancer.

    2) Considering the number of people who depend on this aquifer (1/3 of the country), a bioterrorist might easily target the pipeline…along these same lines it is now public knowledge that very small leaks can go undetected indefinitely. That doesn’t concern anyone??

    Although the probability of reaching the groundwater may be small….the impact of such an improbable event happening could be catastrophic. Not to mention this just deters clean energy alternatives from entering the market. 


    1. I can’t speak to the benzene, but if you look at the map, even if something reaches the aquifer only that small portion east of the pipeline would be affected.

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