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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 ...

Now, the anger stoked by Keystone XL is propelling a broad set of new demands as landholders feel empowered to push TransCanada for annual payments and changes to legal liability – terms that, if they are met, stand to add new costs and risks to the way pipeline companies operate.

Not that people like Mr. Thompson would care. After all, he was ready to sign and be done with it years ago, had the company drawn a new line on a map 200 metres away.

“They have shot themselves in the foot time and time again because of their total arrogance,” he says.

“Honest to God, if they would have done that when we first started asking them to do it – hell, they would have been pumping oil already.”

A challenge for future pipelines

The sign at the Nebraska state line displays a sunny slogan: “the good life.” Lately, though, the state has become the centre of unrest against Keystone XL. But the image of angry ranchers is in many ways a misleading one. In the 2012 election, at the height of the pipeline debate, more Nebraskans voted for the Republican presidential candidate – unabashed Keystone XL supporter Mitt Romney – than in 2008.

It’s not just Nebraska. Every state – and virtually every county – on the pipeline’s path voted for Mr. Romney.

Those voters are committed pipeline supporters, too. Tim Gravelle, a statistician and former pollster who is principal scientist at Insights Lab in Toronto, matched the Keystone XL route with data from a broad 2012 Pew Research Center survey. He found that the closer people are to the pipeline, the more likely they are to support it. Within the broader American public, 66 per cent think the White House should sign off on the pipeline. Among those 800 to 1,600 kilometres away from the route, 76 per cent back approval. At 160 to 800 kilometres, support rises to 79 per cent. And under 160 kilometres from the route, fully 84 per cent want Keystone XL built.

“It is sort of NIMBY turned on its head,” Mr. Gravelle said. “The people for whom this is in their backyard probably recognize there are economic benefits that are going to accrue to me directly, or indirectly as a result of increased economic activity in my area.”

The numbers add a surprising wrinkle to TransCanada’s Keystone troubles, which have arisen on a route filled with people who are, by nature, overwhelmingly disposed to support its work. Those troubles stemmed in part from its route across the sensitive Sand Hills ecosystem – a route it had to be ordered to amend by the White House, after leaving untouched in the face of ranchers begging for change – and in part from activists living far away and concerned about broader environmental issues.

The company acknowledges that the old way of building pipelines no longer works for an industry facing a barrage of concern about leaks and welds and general safety. “We have to change the way that we approach things,” chief executive officer Russ Girling says in an interview.

But, he says, TransCanada works with some 60,000 landowners, and “we have a great relationship with those people.” The company spends years on twists and turns to find the best path. “Once we get it on the map and we get on the ground, we spend a lot of time on the ground rerouting it,” Mr. Girling says. “I’d say there’s been a couple thousand reroutings of that pipeline along that 1,800-kilometre corridor.”

That much becomes clear on a flyover of the southern leg of Keystone XL, which is already under construction: The pipe zigs and zags to avoid an airport and sloughs. At particularly sensitive areas, like a high school and large river crossings, it leaves no mark at all. In those places, the company uses horizontal boring to open a path for the pipe.

There is no avoiding the fact, though, that any pipeline corridor is going to be made up of people’s pastures and backyards and some will hate it “no matter what you do,” Mr. Girling says.

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