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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 ...

Still, Nebraska’s opposition underscores the industry’s challenge ahead. “We just secured $16-billion in new projects,” Mr. Girling says. “No illusions in my mind as to how difficult those are going to be to get permitted. And our challenge as a company is to get better at how we approach these things. And it’s getting on the ground talking to the people that are affected and making sure that you meet their needs.”

Playing hardball with ranchers

Daryl Swenson’s cattle graze around gas wells on his farm near the South Saskatchewan River in Alberta. He has worked for natural gas companies. He thinks Keystone XL is a needed export outlet for the oil that powers Alberta’s economy. “Canada needs the oil to be going out of here,” he says.

But when TransCanada called to negotiate access to his land, he was shocked. “The initial offering of money to the landowners was paltry. It was next to nothing,” he says. “So everybody decided to get together.” Mr. Swenson became one of five negotiators for the Alberta Association of Pipeline Landowners (AAPL), a group that dealt with TransCanada on behalf of 60 per cent of those along the new route for the original Keystone pipeline in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They negotiated terms for Keystone XL as well, led by Jim Ness, a man on the Keystone route with an appetite for fighting hard against big companies.

Mr. Ness is no liberal. “I’m a redneck. I like guns. I shoot guns,” he says. But when he was 12, he was beaten up by a bully and “decided that day that I was going to pursue justice the rest of my life,” he says. He has dedicated much of the past decade to fighting what he considers a new kind of bully: the energy industry. He’s even trained for the battle. In 2004, he became a licensed land agent.

“I wanted to know how the system works and find out if there’s any possibility that landowners have some rights. And, of course, we have practically none.” One major problem involves dead pipelines. Once a system is legally abandoned, landowners worry about who will hold liability for the line – particularly if the company that owned it ceases to exist (although in Canada, the National Energy Board is setting up an abandonment fund to help address the issue).

There are other concerns, too. If Keystone XL is built on Mr. Ness’s land, he says a neighbour can’t legally help him harvest crops on the right-of-way without written permission from TransCanada. (The company says that’s only partly true, and that such rules are there to prevent heavy equipment from damaging the pipe.)

“Some of these issues – it’s not about compensation. It’s about risk liability, hazards imposed on your lifestyle,” Mr. Ness says.

With Keystone, the men sought changes. They wanted annual payments and a lightened long-term liability burden. They failed. According to Canadian and Alberta law, companies “are not forced to do anything,” Mr. Ness says – and with the ability to expropriate, he adds, companies don’t have as much incentive to make people happy.

Along much of the Keystone XL route, landowners described fruitless requests for accommodation. The impoverished Faith School District in South Dakota fought for five years – in a battle that ended up in state supreme court – to move a pump station by 1.5 kilometres in hopes of deriving needed new revenues. It failed.

Cody Math, the first American whose house the pipeline will pass, asked TransCanada to shift a northern Montana pump station in hopes of shielding himself from industrial noise that might affect his quiet home on the plains. He lost. The city of Baker, Mont., wanted a new water well to provide for an 800- to 1,000-person worker camp it intends to build there. TransCanada is spending nearly $3.5-million on water and sewer infrastructure upgrades, but declined a new well – it’s rehabilitating an existing one instead – and the city is paying for a new cell in its sewage lagoon, as well as two new police officers to handle the influx of people.

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