In the Sandhills

The Keystone XL pipeline decision.

In the second week of November, as I was writing this article to explore some of the issues surrounding the route of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline—which will still likely someday carry diluted bitumen from Hardisty, Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast—the Obama administration announced, somewhat unexpectedly, that, indeed, they were sending TransCanada back to come up with alternative routes. The decision is a sound one, but amidst the debate, the rhetoric, the back and forth, I could only wonder how many Canadians will understand what I hope is the reasoning behind the decision, namely, to safeguard the unique Sandhills of Nebraska.  Sparcely populated and seldom visited, the Sandhills are just a blank spot on the map to most. Yet it’s a remarkably valuable region, and given that pipeline routing will almost certainly become only more contentious in the future—as both the population density and the demand for oil increase—it’s worth knowing why the Sandhills matter.

National Geographic

National Geographic

For months now I’ve been conflicted, even torn, about the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline. As an Albertan, I recognize, of course, that oil and gas development is the ultimate source of my good job, comfortable house and (future) college education of my children, yet I can’t ignore the obvious ill effects of fossil fuel exploitation and use. Chief among them, for me, is knowing that we are carving away virgin land to extract and transport the oil. Having grown up in Eastern Europe, surrounded almost exclusively by human-made landscapes, I treasure the still unspoiled boreal and feel a particular moral burden of benefiting from its destruction.

Working as a geologist doesn’t help alleviate my ambivalence. Our training gives us both the expertise to exploit resources and the expertise to protect the environment. Carbon cycle, hydrologic cycle and climate change are concepts assimilated early on in one’s training as a geologist, along with an understanding of the tremendous complexity and variability of natural conditions. It’s no surprise, then, that many geologists are typically not easily alarmed by environmental change. We need to be prepared to apply our expertise wherever the demand is. Right now, I’m regulating and overseeing groundwater remediation and monitoring at spill sites and various industrial operations including oil and gas installations. But in the future, I could just as easily be working for industry to secure a groundwater resource for a steam-assisted in-situ bitumen extraction project.

Even with this background I still found the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route, set to pass through the Nebraska Sandhills, distressing. For me, as for many Nebraskans, land disruption and potential contamination of groundwater were the biggest issues, but, in truth, these are typical concerns for pipeline construction anywhere. What is it, then, that made the Sandhills a special case, and why was there so much anxiety (not least in me) around this route?

As a practicing hydrogeologist with a degree from the University of Nebraska, I can give you an idea. The Sandhills are a massive stabilized dune field, the largest in the western hemisphere; with an area of 57,000 square kilometres, they cover about a quarter of Nebraska. Underneath the Sandhills and in direct hydraulic connection is the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water for crop, stock, and human supply across most of the High Plains region. Rain falling on the sandy hills is immediately soaked up and passed down to the groundwater table. The water table can be deep beneath the tallest dunes, but it comes to the land surface in the low spots between the dunes, resulting in many small lakes and wetlands dotting the Sandhills landscape. It’s hard to imagine a geologic setting more vulnerable to contamination than the Sandhills, with its highly permeable soil, shallow water table, steep gradient, connection to surface water, and America’s most valuable aquifer underneath. A spill would be nearly impossible to contain in such a setting.

But how likely is a spill, there or anywhere? Pipeline safety has improved, but failures still occur. In fact, there are close to 800 pipeline release incidents a year in Alberta alone; most are small, but some are catastrophic, such as the Plains Midstream pipeline release of 28,000 barrels of crude in April 2011 near Little Buffalo.

The fundamental question for decision makers, and everyone else, is always that of tolerable risk. Here is where arbitrary criteria came to play. And here is where I slipped into non-professional, but unavoidable subjectivity. Make no mistake, I agonized poring over the technical and economic pros and cons of this pipeline. Yet over and over again I fell back on the images of the unique Sandhills landscape and its people.

I spent my early twenties in Nebraska—formative years, when the heart and the mind are still open to the new. And the “new” was what I discovered during my summer internship in 1994, the year after the massive flooding in the Mississippi-Missouri basin.  Nebraska was one of the states included in an Environmental Protection Agency study of the effects of flooding on private water wells. The project had the state divided into ten-square- mile grids and my job was to obtain a sample from a water well within each grid block. Equipped with an official state vehicle and county road atlas, I set off crisscrossing the state on its numerous dirt roads in search of residences. The Sandhills was the greatest challenge.

I must have travelled every road in that sparsely populated landscape. I looked for signs of inhabitation: a windmill, a solitary wobbly power line, a turnoff with tire marks.  For miles I would find neither and would entertain myself trying to figure out a pattern to this limitless and restless sea of grass-covered dunes. I’d try to guess if upon cresting a tall, smooth, east-west trending dune, I would find on the other side another one like it or a bunch of smaller hills going any which way. As soon as I thought I was beginning to understand the landforms, I’d be proven wrong. But the surprises were not upsetting. Quite the opposite: I remember feeling awe at the sheer size of some dunes, which were often as high as ninety metres. And being shocked at the sight of surreal lakes complete with pelicans. It was in the Sandhills where I ran into my first flock of wild turkeys, saw my first pronghorn, rattlesnake, snapping turtle, and where I witnessed grasshopper blankets so thick I couldn’t tell the colour of the house underneath.

Whenever I occasionally found a promising turnoff onto a side road—which I hoped would lead me to a house—my tranquility vanished as the sandy roads tested my driving skills and the fleet Ford Tempo. I once managed to get buried in the sand and stuck in the mud on the same day. Luckily, help was nearby. A few days later, on a remote road, I felt the sand under the wheels become loose and deep. I floored it, trying to maintain my speed. I tried not to panic when skidding from left to right, overcompensating, because I knew this time there was no help for miles. My cheeks burned, and my adrenaline level ratcheted up with each passing minute. When I finally reached solid ground I burst out of the vehicle crying. Though many years have passed, I remember the raw emotion of that ride as if it was yesterday.

Traveling the Sandhills roads, both the easy and difficult ones, was a bonding experience with the landscape, a bond made even stronger by meeting the people who made their living from it, although getting to know them was not easy. Pulling up unannounced in a government vehicle was not the ideal way to approach them and it precipitated reactions of reserve if not mild hostility. Oddly, I think it was my Polish accent that helped break their initial mistrust. It also didn’t hurt that I was a student at the University of Nebraska, an institution much appreciated by rural Nebraskans for its outreach service. The Sandhills ranchers were often quite guarded but ready to offer help to a stranger. They weren’t talkative, but were deeply knowledgeable, and although  I came to them as a groundwater “expert” I was frequently humbled by their understanding of well operation and the local groundwater conditions. They knew exactly how deep the water table was under different parts of their land and could tell me precisely how it fluctuated from season to season. It was that depth of understanding of the landscape that allowed them to squeeze in a tiny center pivot irrigation system—a kind of giant sprinkler—in the only places where the precious water would not be wasted but would instead produce valuable hay. I realized that it takes that level of knowledge to make a living on such marginal land.

I ended up taking much more than water samples from my encounters with the Sandhills ranchers. I came to know them as grounded and self-reliant folk, conservationists by necessity, not trend. That was why when I read of the Sandhills ranchers’ concerns with the installation of the 36-inch pipeline, I knew, simply and absolutely, that they spoke from experience in managing this sensitive ecosystem, an ecosystem vulnerable to desertification (as vegetation is stripped for pipeline construction) and contamination (of a life-giving aquifer in the event of a spill).

The Keystone XL pipeline, whatever its final routing, is expected to increase economic development in Alberta, and although logically I know this will benefit Alberta and Canada, and me and my family, it’s also important to know why it would have been wrong to jeopardize the exquisite and fragile Sandhills ecosystem. Such issues are always extraordinarily complex, given all the contradictory technical, economical, and ethical arguments; these are not simple times in which it’s easy to judge right from wrong. But in such circumstances, perhaps I can only turn to what’s in my heart. Especially since a piece of it is still in Nebraska.

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