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The politics of pipe: Keystone's troubled route Add to ...

But pipelines are under attack – everywhere. It’s not just Keystone XL. It’s Northern Gateway, the proposed Enbridge Inc. pipe to the West Coast. It’s Trans Mountain, the Kinder Morgan line connecting Alberta to B.C.’s lower mainland. It’s Line 9, the Enbridge line from Ontario to Quebec. “We are in an era that we haven’t faced,” said Janet Holder, the Enbridge executive vice-president in charge of Gateway. “The way we in the past would have managed [issues] will not work in the future.”

The preferred route

For pipeliners, it’s hard to find a place you can’t bury steel.

“We’ve been in the pipeline business 40 years, and we always use the old expression, ‘If you can land a man on the moon, you can put a pipeline anywhere,’” says Barry Singleton, senior vice-president at Calgary-based Singleton Associate Engineering Ltd., which worked on both Mr. Perry’s Altex project and the first stage of the Keystone project.

In the pipeline industry, direct routes are preferred in order to save on costs – the main reason Keystone XL was pointed across the Sand Hills. Fewer kilometres means less pipe, land-clearing, trenching and reclamation.

Workers fly over the entire route – a process that can take two weeks . For Keystone XL, they actually walked its entire 2,673-kilometre length two or three times. One of the main issues they discovered was bedrock. In parts of Montana, the bedrock is shallow – trenching solid rock is far tougher than digging out soil. Sorting it all out took about a year. When they finished, they felt they had solved the main issues.

That included Nebraska’s Sand Hills, which TransCanada was confident it had figured out. It had spoken with ranchers, landowners, regional agencies and experts. It had told them how it planned to build the pipe. It was told its plans were appropriate.

The company took those statements, and concluded there was no reason to skirt the Sand Hills. “We didn’t feel there was concern,” said Michael Schmaltz, who led TransCanada’s environmental work on Keystone.

“We’ve got 40,000 miles of pipeline we’ve built through all of North America, through various different types of terrain,” including similar terrain in Saskatchewan, said Mr. Schmaltz. The Sand Hills would be challenging. But would that challenge “tilt the world on a different axis? I don’t think so.”

But Saskatchewan’s sand hills aren’t boiling sands. They don’t overlie the most important aquifer on the continent. And they aren’t an icon. Nebraska’s Sand Hills are, one of the state’s U.S. senators has said, to Nebraskans what the Rockies are to Albertans.

Adapting to new realities

Despite its financial firepower, and millions spent on lobbyists, TransCanada couldn’t outmatch its critics.

“There’s probably 10 large environmental organizations with a lot more staff that are blogging, that are writing news releases, that are out there in the communities,” said TransCanada spokesman James Millar. The company struggled to know what to say. The debate over Keystone XL was, for a pipeline company, uncharted territory for a blue-chip utility with no experience fighting environmentally minded Hollywood actors.

“One of the things we’ve learned through this process,” Alex Pourbaix, the company’s president of energy and oil pipelines, said at a Toronto investor day in November, “is we have to be a lot more pro-active in dealing with those emotional issues.”

The company failed to listen to key voices. In Nebraska, TransCanada faced down a year of calls to switch its route around the Sand Hills, calls that came from powerful people like Nebraska’s governor and its two U.S. senators. The company refused, adamantly. The Sand Hills route, it said, was far and away the best.

Then, on November 10, 2011, the State department said it had “determined it needs to undertake an in-depth assessment of potential alternative routes in Nebraska,” citing the environmental sensitivities of the Sand Hills. Public concern had trumped technical reassurances. Hollywood had trumped the engineers.

It took four days for TransCanada to agree to change the route and skip the Sand Hills, prompting the question of whether it could have avoided the conflict all along.

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