The message rallied Nebraskans from ranches to cities, and it was what President Obama pointed to in January when he rejected the initial Keystone XL route. In May, TransCanada submitted a revised route to the State Department, bypassing the Sand Hills but still passing over some parts of the aquifer.
“The Ogallala aquifer is the greatest underground water source, I believe, in the world,” said Gerald E. Happ, whose ranch in Greeley the pipeline originally would have crossed. “And it’s the purest. . . . And we need the water, and maybe the water may be way more precious than the oil sometime in the future.”
Expert is ‘embarrassed’
All this offends Goecke, who even Stansbury calls “the number one expert” on the aquifer. Goecke says that many people have the wrong impression about the danger a pipeline leak would pose to the Ogallala. It’s not like dropping oil into a lake, he says; remember, the aquifer is more like a sponge.
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.”