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At dedication ceremonies in 1953, Nebraska Sen. Hugh Butler referred to completion of the Platte Pipeline through his state as "the most significant event to occur in this part of the country since the railroads tied the West and the East into a united country."

No doubt Butler felt inspired by the connection the 20-inch-diameter pipeline carrying Rocky Mountain crude also offered to what then were recently tapped oil deposits in the Nebraska Panhandle.

Almost 60 years later, the Platte pipe is already full by the time it gets to Nebraska, and the state's relatively modest oil extractions now move by truck. Meanwhile, plans for burying the much bigger Keystone XL pipeline through the Nebraska Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer have been questioned by both of Nebraska's U.S. senators.

Kinder Morgan's Platte Pipeline, connected across the border into Alberta, Canada, by the Express Pipeline in the 1990s, rarely comes up as a frame of reference for TransCanada's ambitions for linking the tar sands of Alberta with refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

That's the case even though it crosses the same aquifer that stretches all the way to Texas and even though the records of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration indicate Kinder Morgan has operated the Nebraska span from the Wyoming border to an exit point in Gage County near Odell without significant safety incident since it acquired it in 2005.

Wayne Duis of Odell was just a kid when construction crews for the Platte Pipeline came through his family's farm property in 1951.

Since then, Duis' acres also have been crossed by TransCanada's first petroleum project, called Keystone, and by three smaller lines carrying anhydrous ammonia, propane and gasoline.

"The biggest problem with the old Platte Pipeline -- it's never caused any damage -- but it's not very deep anymore," he said. "That creates some problems with doing conservation work in the area."

Shallow depth makes it hard to proceed with soil terraces and grassy waterways "because there's just not enough dirt cover over the top of it."

Doing a comprehensive review of safety incidents on the Platte Pipeline is difficult because of multiple changes in ownership over almost six decades, changes in the federal agencies with oversight responsibility and changes in the way federal records have been kept.

But there has been at least one bigger problem farther west and prior to its ownership by Kinder Morgan.

In 1981, according to a story by The Associated Press, its previous owners agreed to a $50,000 settlement of an incident in which a section of pipe broke near Glenrock, Wyo., and spilled more than 8,500 barrels of oil into the North Platte River.

Wyoming state officials said at the time that the spill contaminated 68 miles of the river.

The pipeline owners of that time, formally known as the Platte Pipe Line Co., claimed the real cause of the problem was a third-party construction incident in which workers laying phone lines accidentally hit and weakened the pipe wall.

In the absence of digging accidents, said Kinder Morgan spokesman Joe Hollier from company offices in Houston, Texas, there are no reliable gauges of the life expectancy of pipe walls.

"They will go as long as they're properly taken care of and maintained," he said. "They don't have an expiration date."

Duis said the Platte Pipeline has gotten maintenance attention in the past few years in his area.

"They came through seven or eight years ago. And any place they found it wearing a little thin, they put a band around it and welded it tight," he said.

Bill Sydow, based in Sidney with the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, thinks the unblemished record of the Platte Pipeline in Nebraska over his 16 years on the job is worthy of more attention than it has gotten during the Keystone XL debate.

"We have had safe pipeline operation for over 50 years, both oil and natural gas," he said.

Along the way, Nebraska oil got bumped off the transport schedule for the Platte Pipeline. That's related to a fall-off from peak Nebraska production of 71,000 barrels a day to the current 3,000 barrels, Sydow said, and to the fact that the entire capacity of the pipeline is now spoken for before it gets to Nebraska.

He recently testified against three bills introduced in the Nebraska Legislature that would, among other things, require TransCanada and other pipeline companies to file proof of financial responsibility prior to building their projects.

Those bills are pending with the Natural Resources Committee.

It would be fine with Sydow if they never got as far as a vote by the full Legislature.

"I don't see any benefit of Nebraska having any oversight on a project like this," he said in an interview, "because there's never been anything before, and things have worked out."

Jane Kleeb of Hastings, one of the leaders of groups that oppose TransCanada's route through the Sandhills, doesn't think the Platte Pipeline route farther south makes for fair comparison on the risk posed to drinking water.

One reason is that Sandhills soils typically are much more porous and vulnerable to groundwater contamination than those farther south.

"The Nebraska Sandhills simply doesn't have this type of pipeline out there," Kleeb said, "and we think that's for a reason."

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com.

 

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