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Randy Thompson has become the face of the Nebraska opposition to Keystone XL. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)
Randy Thompson has become the face of the Nebraska opposition to Keystone XL. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

Down the line: How TransCanada fumbled the Keystone pipeline project Add to ...

Reporter Nathan VanderKlippe hopped in a car and drove the proposed route of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to sketch the people and places that stand in its way. This is the conclusion of his six-part series.
 

The kid, as Randy Thompson calls the land agent from TransCanada Corp., wanted to talk. He was persistent. So Mr. Thompson arranged a meeting at the family’s Nebraska ranch house.

Down the line: A six-part series

“He wanted to know if they could do some surveying,” Mr. Thompson recalls. “We told the kid – if you want to waste your time, go ahead and survey it. But I can tell you, we don’t want the damn pipeline.”

TransCanada wanted to build its Keystone XL project through the middle of the Thompsons’ corn field. The family was worried that it would disrupt the farm’s irrigation system. But there was a solution. If TransCanada would move the pipeline an eighth of a mile – 200 metres – the Thompsons could live with that.

“We said, ‘you just run this thing down to the end of our field so it’s not cutting our field in half, and we’ll sign the damn easement,’ ” he says.

TransCanada said no, arguing that the move would require too sharp a bend in the pipe. It threatened expropriation if the family would not sign a deal. Mr. Thompson grew angry. His face, the Stetson-bearing image of the “pissed-off farmer” he calls himself, became the symbol of an opposition that sprung out of the corn fields and spread all the way to the White House. Mr. Thompson would go on to personally meet with some of the most powerful political leaders in the United States to argue against Keystone XL.

But, he says six years later, it didn’t have to be this way – TransCanada could have just moved the pipe route at the time and settled the matter.

It is a common sentiment.

The pipeline industry faces what former U.S. pipeline regulatory official Brigham McCown calls “a decade of activists aggressively targeting pipeline infrastructure.” Keystone XL, whose review has now stretched over 67 months, is a singular example of how badly things can go wrong for the energy industry when those activists dig in – and how costly that resistance can be.

The Keystone XL battle casts a shadow over TransCanada and rival Enbridge Inc. at a time when the companies together are working through some $62-billion in new projects. It is a historic renaissance in pipeline building at a time of unprecedented opposition to what those companies do.

And for Canada, building Keystone XL is of singular importance. The pipeline promises to open a major new outlet for Alberta oil, which has faced difficult and deep swings in prices due to export bottlenecks, and provide support for the continued expansion of the oil sands. For that reason, it has been avidly pursued by the highest levels of both government and industry.

Yet what becomes evident on a drive along the 3,134-kilometre length of Keystone XL is that some of the industry’s pain is self-inflicted. Along the route, many describe TransCanada and its land agents as intransigent, hard-nosed, quick to threaten court-approved expropriation of land and slow to offer reasonable compensation.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, after a crowd of cattle and wheat farmers gathered to jointly negotiate terms, they succeeded in securing 10 times the money TransCanada first suggested – raising questions over the reasonableness of the initial offer, a question that has echoed elsewhere on the route.

Even those supportive of the pipeline and its benefits have often been left with a bitter taste from dealings with a company that declined to accommodate concerns over pipeline pump stations and worker-housing facilities.

TransCanada has found through polls of its landowners that “we’re doing a good job,” says Andrew Craig, land manager for the Keystone system. He declined, however, to provide more specific approval numbers.

The company says it is, as a general policy, generous with landowners, and has obtained voluntary agreements to access the land on more than 90 per cent of the route. Of course, landowners know that if they don’t sign on their own, the company can force its way onto their land through the courts.

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