The Keystone XL pipeline has brought into sharp relief some of the most pressing economic, political and social issues facing the continent. As a U.S. review on a presidential permit for the project nears its conclusion, reporter Nathan VanderKlippe hopped in a car and drove the pipeline’s route to sketch the people and places that stand in its way. This is the sixth part of a week-long series.
Part one: What I found on my trip along the Keystone route
Part two: Skeptical artists, multiplying bison and American believers
Part three: 'Praise God! Let the oil flow'
Part four: 'Great white father... we do not want this pipeline'
Part five: Nebraska pipeline fighter: 'I wouldn't take $5-million'
View a map of Nathan's journey
Explore more on our Keystone XL pipeline page.
THE BENEVOLENT PIPELINERS
They came running out of the woods in camouflage, days after the Boston Marathon bombing. They were activists, but it was like “they were going to ambush” the workers installing the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, says John Steward, assistant project manager for the top 314-kilometre section, or spread, of the project.
“So we’re scared, you know.”
In the world of pipeline construction, intruders are hardly a normal workplace risk. But then, very little about Keystone XL has been normal. What started as one project has now been split apart – and while the stalled northern leg continues to hog public attention, the southern leg, called the Gulf Coast Project, is rapidly approaching completion. By later this year, it will be pumping oil from Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Tex.
TransCanada Corp. offered to take me out for a look, picking me up in a helicopter, flying me over parts of the right-of-way, and then landing near a spot where pipe was physically being lowered into the trench. After thousands of kilometres of talking about Keystone XL in the abstract, it was a chance to see it actually take form.
Pipeline construction is an impressive thing to behold. From the air, the sheer size of the right-of-way – at some 35 metres wide, it’s broader than many country roads – is striking, as is the vast amount of equipment arrayed along its length. TransCanada has come under fire for inflating jobs estimates – but it’s clear it takes major labour to build a pipeline.
What also grows clear is the care that goes into planning a pipeline path. The route dips and jogs, going out of its way to bypass an airport and dipping out of sight by a high school and near large rivers. In sensitive areas, TransCanada doesn’t open the earth to place the pipe. It drills beneath it, leaving the surface untouched. At smaller watercourses, the company first builds temporary bridges, waiting for the right time to dig through. Then, it completes the operation in 24 hours – opening the ground, installing the pipe, covering it back up – to minimize the disturbance.
The great majority of the pipe, of course, is installed using more traditional, and far more invasive, methods. But here, too, the care is notable. Among the first crews to pass through are fencers, who install reinforcements so “so when we cut [people’s] fence or take their fence down, it doesn’t loosen up the rest of the fence,” Mr. Steward says. Trees are cut, then topsoil is pushed back in a dike parallel to the pipe direction, so it can be replaced later.
Before it's laid, each piece of pipe is kept from touching the ground – or other pipe – using either wooden stands or rope wound around its outer circumference. Close attention is paid to the coating. Pipelines don’t use stainless steel – it would be far too expensive. They keep rust at bay with an outer coating, and maintaining a perfect cover in that coating is crucial to avoiding corrosion. So the coating is checked numerous times.