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The Oxford Dictionary defines “aquifer” as “a layer of rock or soil able to hold or transmit much water.”

For the Ogallala Aquifer, this is an understatement. With a capacity near that of Lake Huron, the Ogallala Aquifer stretches from South Dakota to Texas, giving life to the land and economy of the High Plains. Almost all industrial and residential water for this region comes from it, although over ninety percent is used by farms. Nearly a fifth of U.S.-grown wheat, corn, cotton and cattle is sustained by the Ogallala Aquifer.

The High Plains is the most heavily irrigated land in the Western Hemisphere, with nearly thirteen and a half million acres irrigated in the Ogallala region. Nebraska is by far the heaviest user.

Concerns about groundwater contamination in the Ogallala Aquifer arose in the 1990s, when surveys showed traces of chemicals used in farming and ranching. But the biggest environmental controversy surrounding the future of this resource has been the Keystone XL pipeline.

Keystone Pipeline Map

Proposed in 2008 by the TransCanada Corporation, the $5.4 billion Keystone XL project is intended to carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canadian tar sands to Oklahoma and coastal Texas. According to TransCanada’s website, the Keystone “is a critical infrastructure project for the energy security of the United States and for strengthening the American economy. Along with transporting crude oil from Canada, the Keystone XL Pipeline will also support the significant growth of crude oil production in the United States by allowing American oil producers more access to the large refining markets found in the American Midwest and along the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

The project has been held up in court for years, over concerns that a rupture will threaten the aquifer, even though pipelines are relatively safe compared to moving oil by road or rail. Forbes Magazine notes that it has been more than 2000 days since TransCanada first submitted its paperwork to build the politically charged Keystone XL. In this time, over four thousand miles of other crude oil pipelines have been built across the US. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisprandoni/2014/04/30/while-democrats-fundraise-off-keystone-delay-americans-lay-10000-miles-of-pipeline/)

Even if a catastrophe never occurs, will Keystone XL hit farmers and ranchers in their wallets? Landowners from Nebraska’s Sandhill region have raised concerns about a proposed leg of the pipeline potentially crossing their property. The mere possibility of a spill can increase the insurance risk on their property, and raise interest rates on loans.

Nebraska passed a law in 2012 to expedite the approval of a new route for the pipeline through the state. In February, a district court held that the law was unconstitutional. On April 18, the White House announced it was indefinitely delaying a federal decision on the pipeline until the legal questions are cleared up. The next legal strategy of lobbyists is a century-old Nebraska law meant to check the influence of railroad barons. If Nebraska’s Supreme Court decides Keystone has the same legal status as a railroad, a decision might wait until late in 2015, and TransCanada may also be forced to make further alterations to its route.

TransCanada stocks could suffer as a result of this delay, but whether or not it’s completed, the Keystone XL isn’t likely to have much impact on oil and gasoline prices. However, one advantage of oil imported from Canada is security. Canadian oil doesn’t require the protection that the U.S. Navy provides to Mideastern oil moving through the Strait of Hormuz. Should we continue our dependency upon foreign oil, this is an important factor to consider.