A Tale of Two Pipelines

One of the reasons we’re supposed to be wary of the Keystone XL Pipeline is its alleged threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, the water source for much of the Great Plains. From Wikipedia:

The depth of the water below the surface of the land ranges from almost 400 feet (122 m) in parts of the north [e.g., Nebraska – Ed.] to between 100 to 200 feet (30 to 61 m) throughout much of the south. Present-day recharge of the aquifer with fresh water occurs at an exceedingly slow rate suggesting that much of the water in its pore spaces is paleowater, dating back to the last ice age and probably earlier. Withdrawals from the Ogallala are in essence mining ancient water. [Emphasis added.]

The pipeline would be separated by almost 400 vertical feet from the aquifer, which is not actively recharged. That makes it extremely unlikely that even a large pipeline leak would contaminate water supplies.

In an attempt to mollify environmental concerns,

The builders of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline agreed Monday to reroute it around Nebraska’s ecologically fragile Sandhills in the hope the move would shorten any delay in the project, which has posed political complications for the Obama administration.

President Obama is caught between key constituencies. Labor unions want the jobs the pipeline would bring. Environmentalists are opposed to any large scale project, especially one that promotes fossil fuel development.

So he took the bold, decisive approach. He postponed any pipeline decision until after the 2012 election.

All of which recalls another era, and another pipeline in an environmentally sensitive area.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS)

TAPS was built in just over two years in response to the first Arab Oil Embargo. The first barrel was pumped in June 1977.

Cumulative throughput of TAPS is over 16 billion barrels. Sixteen billion domestic barrels, which have built Alaska’s economy, generated jobs and taxes, and displaced 16,000 supertankers of foreign oil.

TAPS is 48 inches across and 800 miles long. It crosses three major mountain ranges and 30 rivers and streams. It was built with private funds: $8 billion, back when $1 billion was considered real money.

TAPS has sustained two large leaks during its 34 years of operation. Both were about 6,000 barrels in volume. One was caused by a saboteur with a high powered rifle. (TAPS is elevated above ground because of freezing ground conditions. Keystone XL would be buried.)

Let’s recall that the lions of the Democratic Party, including Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, opposed building TAPS. Only the vote of VP Spiro Agnew broke a Senate deadlock to allow pipeline construction to proceed.

The same factions that opposed TAPS then are opposed to Keystone XL now. Most of their dire warnings about the impact of TAPS on Alaska’s pristine wilderness environment were wrong. The caribou are doing fine.

The Obama Administration has dithered on the Keystone XL for a longer period of time than it took to build TAPS.

Cross-posted at RedState.com.

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8 Responses to A Tale of Two Pipelines

    • Steve Maley says:

      Nice fear mongering.

      Wikipedia’s list includes natural gas pipelines and refined products lines. The main hazard with those is explosion. You may as well have included a list of plane wrecks and bus tragedies.

      More relevant is Wikipedia’s list of largest oil spills. Note that nearly every one is an oil tanker. There’s your alternative.

  1. slp says:

    I thought TAPS stood for Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The Alaska pipeline is not entirely above ground, good portions are also below ground. Permafrost is a major issue in Alaska, look a the standards the pipeline rests on and you will see cooling fins to help keep the ground frozen, thus stabilizing it. And, the “pristine wilderness” the pipeline crosses is mostly a frozen wasteland. When standing next to the pipeline, it may look like an impact to the environment, but in context it covers a tiny portion of the landscape. As an exercise, look at satellite imagery of Alaska, without labels, and try zooming in to find the pipeline (or other man-made structures for that matter). When looking at reliability, consider too that Alaska is fairly seismically active.

    My question is, what would happen if the states ignored the federal government, formed a coalition, and proceeded with Keystone XL anyway? If it passes through federally owned land, I think it would be great if the states used Eminent Domain to get the land back; it would, after all, be for the public good.

    • Steve Maley says:

      Yes, you are right. The moral of that story is, don’t blog while sleepy.

      The agency which currently holds the ball is the State Department, since this is an international line. The Feds also control interstate commerce. I think the states would lose in court if they tried your end run.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Drew says:

    For the vast majority of Nebraska, the Ogallala is quite deep but for about a twenty mile area, the depth is around ten feet or less. However, your main point is still valid. Aquifers are slow. No one should believe in Stansbury’s 15 mile plume of science fiction. In addition, the majority of Nebraskans do NOT get their drinking water from the Ogallala aquifer.

    • Steve Maley says:

      Thanks for the info, and the comment.

      • Steve,

        Yes the Ogallala even where it is shallow recharges very slowly. Drinking water of the municipal variety does sometimes come from it but the same rules apply.

        Now if someone could get our politicians to read what you wrote and quit their endless fearmongering and grandstanding. I support the pipeline but some of the tactics, especially in routing, used in Nebraska were/are troubling

  3. citizenkla says:

    The beauty of the type of crude which the Keystone XL would make available to what amounts to 11 refineries (near the coast) in Texas and Louisiana is that it replaces Venezuelan crude, not domestic production. The few refineries in the world configured and complex enough to process such very heavy crude as these two, are concentrated along the TX & LA Gulf Coast. Of course, there are a few remaining in California which refine very heavy Kern Basin crude.

    The large refineries which bit the bullet and invested lots of capital to be able to utilize very heavy crude, did so because PEMEX’s Mayan and Venezuelan crude oils were less expensive, nearby (thus lower transport cost) and great for filling the then growing demand for petroleum coke. This change began to occur around 1980.

    Since 2000 three inland refineries had major construction projects to enable them to refine Canadian Syncrude. They are Marathon, Detroit, MI, ConocoPhillips, Wood River, IL (East St. Louis area), and ConocoPhillips, Borger, TX (North of Amarillo). The Syncrude enters the U.S. via two different pipelines. The one to Detroit, and the Keystone (sans the XL) to Cushing, OK and eastward to Wood River, IL. ConocoPhilips converted its terminal in Cushing to be able to pump the crude onward through an existing pipeline to Borger.

    We are talking about a type crude oil which looks like black wax shoe polish at room temperature.

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