Skip to main content

'Time for a Gut-Check': What Geology Can Tell Us About the Keystone XL Decision

While the legal fight hinges on the pipeline's new route, risks below ground remain the same.
An activist adjusts his hat while protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline during the Native Nations Rise protest on March 10th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

An activist adjusts his hat while protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline during the Native Nations Rise protest on March 10th, 2017, in Washington, D.C. 

Nebraska regulators on Monday approved the Keystone XL pipeline by a vote of three to two, following nine years of stalemate—but with a new route, which would send an estimated 830,000 barrels of crude oil eastward through the Earth in a path parallel to the existing Keystone pipeline.

Regulators say the new route would enable more efficient responses in case of an emergency at either pipeline, the New York Times reports. And after yet another leak in South Dakota last week, which doused a grassy agriculture field with 210,000 galloons of crude oil, an emergency seems quite likely, according to environmental scientists.

Almost nine million gallons of crude oil has spilled from pipelines in the United States since 2010, and while most of this spill-off is contained, the effects can linger beneath the surface for decades, contaminating farmland, rivers, and groundwater.

Nebraskan researchers Steven Sibray and Douglas Hallum, who advocated for increased safety measures ahead of the pipeline decision, wrote in a 2017 report that "accidental releases of hydrocarbons are bound to occur."

Groundwater contamination is a major concern for Nebraskans with farms and ranches along the pipeline route; others have dedicated their careers to assessing the possible effects of the Keystone XL pipeline, which remains in legal limbo.

Activists have hailed the decision to change the path of the pipeline as a partial victory because the new route must undergo federal scrutiny before the project can proceed, though the pipeline company, TransCanada, said it is set to conduct a "careful review" of Monday's decision.

"While we were disappointed that the [Public Service Commission] didn't reject the preferred route, the fact is, they didn't grant [TransCanada] what they wanted," says Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign. "The new route presents a number of legal and logistical challenges that will make it even harder for this project to get built."

For his part, Matt Joeckel, state geologist and associate director for the Conservation and Survey Division in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has tried to stay out of the divisive politics surrounding Keystone XL. Instead, he remains focused on what goes on below ground: an interconnected system of groundwater that, if threatened, could drastically alter the standard of living for those near the pipeline's path.

Pacific Standard spoke to Joeckel about how pipelines affect the Earth's geology—and why eliminating risk takes more than just shifting a route.


What are the primary environmental risks of pipelines?

There's always a risk with anything that people do on the land surface that alters the chemistry, the biology, or the physical setting of natural environments. That goes from putting fertilizers on fields to transporting hydrocarbons, to driving a car. With pipelines, some of the biggest problems have occurred where they cross streams or rivers. Unless those are engineered properly, that could be an accident waiting to happen. Certainly, there can be accidents at the surface, and one of those just happened. My position here is neither pro nor con. All over this country we're cleaning up after old and new gas stations; I don't normally see people up in arms about that.

Obviously, a pipeline is a point source of pollution. You know pretty much where the pollution is coming from if you can locate a break. If we hold companies accountable and have the right legislation, and have the right offices that operate in the public interest, then we have mechanisms in place to begin to address point pollution. ... The general rule with contaminants in groundwater—and it's all relative—is that point-source pollution is easier to deal with than non-source pollution [like nitrate fertilizers]. It's coming from one place, and, presumably, you can identify where it's coming from.

Much of this depends on what systems we have in place as a nation, as a society, as a government, supposedly by the people and of the people. The geology is an important beginning of it, but really there's no place where you'd want to actively contaminate the land surface.

Matt Joeckel.

Matt Joeckel.

How would a spill from the Keystone Pipeline, or Keystone XL if it were to be built, specifically affect landowners in Nebraska?

My overwhelming concern would be for the people who live close to the pipeline. In the subsurface, contaminants don't travel as fast as, say, water does. It is not as though a rupture from a pipeline can contaminate an entire aquifer in short order. You don't have enough contaminant; presumably somebody is going to be on top of the rupture—we're talking about material traveling at comparably slow rates. But any definition of "slow" people can argue with. If the contaminant makes it through the water table to the aquifer ... we can see plumes [of contaminant] migrating from year to year, but we're not going to contaminate a county-sized area in short order. What is "short order"? Decades to centuries. Does that mean it's right? Does that mean we should not worry about point-source pollution from pipelines? Absolutely, unequivocally not. That isn't my opinion; that's truth.

The commission approved an alternate route, presumably because it avoids some groundwater. Would this change the environmental impact, and, if so, to what extent?

Well, there's groundwater everywhere. We have a perfectly good geological survey in this state. We have expertise; we could have guided this effort better. But nobody came to us until the very end. There was a big debate about the actual boundary of the Sand Hills, as if that was really the relevant question at the time. It's much deeper than that: What's the geology, all the way down to the layer of bedrock that confines the aquifer below? What kinds of depths are we talking about? What is the slope of landscape at any given point? There are a score of factors that I would want to look at.

When it comes to environmental issues, I think people associate, and rightly so, with living things. I love living things—I love the redwoods, I love blue whales, I love my dog. But we commonly don't think enough about the physical systems that are the underpinning for all that: soils, geology, etc. I think Americans are going to need to know more about geology, groundwater, and solid earth natural resources in the future if they hope to maintain our standard of living or some kind of environmental awareness. In Nebraska it's probably a bit better; people have a certain amount of pride in groundwater resources here.

What was missing from the conversation about the pipeline route, and what would you have liked to see happen?

I wish that people had come to us in the Conservation and Survey Division from the very start. We are an example of how public money is put to good use. We've collected a lot of data over the years.

Why does geology matter here?

Just because most of the organisms we're familiar with are at the surface of the Earth doesn't mean there aren't any below the surface. We have this huge reservoir of water, called groundwater; that's in the geological realm. Surface water and groundwater are intimately connected. It really is a dynamic planet in so many ways, but the dynamism of the living organisms in the solid Earth is something we still don't appreciate.

Since this is such an interconnected system, can any route ever reduce impact?

In some ways, it could reduce risk, but it doesn't eliminate it. No matter where you put it, it's gonna be the people right next to the pipeline, the people who live within a kilometer or two. They'll have to deal with pipeline construction and traffic, any leaks at the surface, or if they have a well that's shallow. That isn't going to change. The radius of concern may change a little bit, but there's still risk and hazard.

Aside from the route, what are some ways to meaningfully reduce harm in case of leaks?

The first one would be not building it. We already have a lot of pipelines. People would say the nature of this product is different, but it's not so vastly different that we can't estimate its physical behavior. Pipelines do rupture from time to time—the worst case are surface ones, when it goes over a river and it breaks.

Is this risk inevitable then?

It is impossible to have a highly technological society and not encumber risk, period. That does not justify anything in itself.

This is not just a learning opportunity about earth science and groundwater; it's a time for a gut check—whether we only look at environmental issues when they show up in our backyards.