He said people “were concerned that any spill would contaminate and ruin the water in the entire aquifer, and that’s just practically impossible.” To do that, the oil would essentially have to run uphill, he said. “The gradient of the groundwater is from west to east; 75 percent to 80 percent of the aquifer is west of the pipeline, and any contamination can’t move up gradient or up slope,” he said.
“Secondly,” Goecke added, “any leakage would be very localized. . . . A spill wouldn’t be nice, but it would certainly be restricted to within a half-mile of the pipeline.” He predicted that the varied layers of fine-grained seams of silt and clay would contain the flow of oil.
After TransCanada submitted a revised Keystone XL route that veered east of the Sand Hills, Goecke agreed to appear in a television ad for TransCanada.
“I’ve spent my career drilling holes to and through the Ogallala Formation. I’ve probably seen as much of the Ogallala as anybody,” he says on camera. “There’s a misconception that if the aquifer is contaminated, the entire water supply of Nebraska is going to be endangered, and that’s absolutely false. If people recognize the science of the situation, I think that should allay a lot of the fears.”
Kleeb sees the ad as a betrayal.
“Dr. Goecke . . . at one point was raising the same red flags many of us still are today,” said Kleeb. “In his original testimony to our state [legislature] in 2010, he said he actually does not know [the impact on the Ogallala] since he does not know how tar sands and the chemicals mixed with it will affect the aquifer. To say a spill will be ‘localized’ is just spin by TransCanada to try to ease the valid concerns we all have — the unknown risks.”
The full story about Goecke is a bit more complicated.
“I was embarrassed about the ad because I knew I would look like a shill for TransCanada,” said Goecke, who wasn’t paid for appearing in it. “But what I talked about was common sense.”
While Goecke thinks some threats have been exaggerated, he has his own worries about the pipeline. Where the revised route crosses Holt County, he says, the water table is so near the surface that leaks would go into it more quickly and directly “and foul stuff up.” According to TransCanada’s April 18 filing with Nebraska’s environment department, 10.48 miles of the new pipeline route would cross areas where the depth to groundwater is five to 10 feet.
Goecke also worries about the crossing of the broad, shallow Platte River, because if oil leaked there, “that could get downstream and foul the water supply for Omaha and Lincoln.”
But Goecke believes TransCanada has taken precautions. It plans to drill far under the riverbed to avoid the problem other pipelines have encountered when riverbeds change and trees or other debris swept downstream tear holes in the pipe. TransCanada, whose new Nebraska route includes 29 year-round water crossings, has also said it would make the pipeline thicker in sensitive areas.
TransCanada has tried to ease anxieties about leaks. At its Calgary headquarters, the company has a control room that monitors pipeline pressures throughout its network. There are 16,000 data points on the existing Keystone pipeline, completed last year, and they are refreshed every five seconds, the company says.
Quickly detecting a pressure drop that could indicate a leak is essential; the flow rate on the existing pipeline is about 410 barrels a minute, and the capacity of the new line would be about a third bigger. The company says that it can isolate a piece of pipeline and shut off the flow of oil in just 15 minutes.
TransCanada chief executive Russ Girling said in an interview, however, that in the event of a spill in the ground, “the oil doesn’t migrate from that spot. It doesn’t go anywhere. This notion that we have a plume of oil . . . that doesn’t occur.”
In Canada, the company has already drilled deep under the Red Deer River, one of the two biggest Canadian rivers the new line would cross. Using horizontal drilling pioneered in the oil industry, TransCanada has burrowed a 11/2-mile-long hole, 230 feet under the riverbed, and pulled the steel pipe through. A small piece of the pipeline, sealed, is visible on either side awaiting the next stage of construction.
But Stansbury says there still isn’t enough known. While he conceded in an interview that his worst-case scenario might be overstated, he added that “an adequate assessment of the risks hasn’t been made” and that TransCanada is required to analyze such a scenario as part of its environmental impact study.
Other environmental threats
Oil isn’t the only threat to the Ogallala.
Pipeline supporters accuse landowners who oppose it of being blind to the damage they themselves have done.