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Clayton Hornung, the mayor of Baker, Montana, walks near heavy equipment building a water line to the site of a proposed “man-camp” for the TransCanada Corp. Keystone XL project on April 23, 2013. Oil money has made Baker High School so rich that it has built a large new football facility for its 120 students. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)
Clayton Hornung, the mayor of Baker, Montana, walks near heavy equipment building a water line to the site of a proposed “man-camp” for the TransCanada Corp. Keystone XL project on April 23, 2013. Oil money has made Baker High School so rich that it has built a large new football facility for its 120 students. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

Keystone XL: The Journey of a Pipeline

‘Praise God! Let the oil flow!’ The Keystone road trip Add to ...

TransCanada also rebuffed requests to drill an additional water well, opting instead to recondition one of the town’s existing four sources of drinking water. Baker, too, is spending its own money to add an extra holding cell to its sewage lagoon. It only expects to get two or three permanent workers out of Keystone XL, if it’s built. Even in this oil-rich area, many opposed the project.

“When you look locally, it’s probably a 50-50 split,” Mr. Hornung says. “Some people say there’s probably too much of a negative impact.”

Even Michael Heiser isn’t entirely happy about the project. His great-grandfather bought Heiser’s Bar in 1933; the thin wooden planks on the floor were installed during Prohibition times, when it became a bowling alley. Today, the bar serves up a tasty brisket sandwich, and Mr. Heiser refuses to take payment for it. He likes the rise in oil drilling in the area. “We’ve noticed there’s a lot of people in, and they come in and eat almost every night. And they don’t cause problems,” he says.

Keystone XL, too, sounds like a good idea, he says: “It could do a lot of good. Put a lot of jobs out there for a lot of people.”

But the man-camp? That’s different.

“From what I’ve heard, they’re going to put their own grocery store out there, their own restaurant,” he says. “That’s just going to take away from our town.”

Between local ranch work and oil field work, it’s not like Baker needs the jobs, either. The unemployment rate here stands at 2.2 per cent – about as close to zero as a place can be.

The mayor confirms Mr. Heiser’s fears. The camp will, in fact, have a mess hall.

But no one wants to eat camp food forever, the mayor says, and workers will invariably find their way into town – perhaps into Mr. Heiser’s bar. Besides, the opportunity to renovate some infrastructure – even if Mr. Hornung didn’t get everything he wanted – was too good to pass up. He estimates the town needs $17-million worth of improvements; the TransCanada money is a start, and Baker will get access to the water and sewer lines once the pipeline is built.

“It’s nice to protect the environment,” Mr. Hornung says, referring to one of the biggest criticisms of the pipeline. “But my biggest concern is an opportunity to create jobs, create revenue, improve our infrastructure.”

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A GIANT PIPE YARD

If you were to commission a movie today on Keystone XL, it might be temping to call it “The Phantom Pipeline.” After years of lobbying, political rancour, industry advertisements and activist arrests, this is a pipeline that does not yet exist.

Except, it does.

It’s not assembled yet, but the Keystone XL pipeline is already largely built. TransCanada has spent more than $1.8-billion already. And a good chunk of those dollars is lying on a field beside railway tracks running through North Dakota.

It’s a startling sight on Highway 12, mid-way between Scranton and Reeder, right next to Zeke’s Rooster Ranch. Pile upon pile upon pile of 36-inch-diameter pipe fills the field. Some pipe segments bears prominent “Made in Canada” ink. Others are made in the U.S.

Most pipes are coated in green. Some have now been painted white to protect the coating from damaging UV rays – a step TransCanada has been forced to take amid the long wait for Keystone XL. A man at a nearby rail yard says this will be the third summer it has been here.

There is so much that it would take days to count. I struggle to find an angle for a picture to convey the scale of it. Conservatively, I tell myself there must be at least hundreds of lengths of pipe, all 23 to 24 metres long.

A check with TransCanada proves that I’m wrong. The company calls this its Gascoyne pipe yard. It is home to 218 miles of pipe, or 350 kilometres. The northern leg of the pipeline is 1,897 kilometres long. This field contains nearly a fifth of Keystone XL. There are some 15,000 pieces of pipe here.

It is a staggering sight.

Seeing it makes clear the quandary TransCanada finds itself in today. It has spent heavily to prepare for pipeline construction. And yet it – and, indeed, the entire Canadian energy industry – continues to wait.

At the same time, the giant pipe yard is a tangible look at exactly what pipeline opponents are fighting so hard to stop. Where TransCanada looks at the steel and sees a gleaming piece of infrastructure that will be built to the highest standards of modern metallurgy and fabrication, critics sees pipe that looks disarmingly thin.

If nothing else, the Gascoyne yard is some kind of proof that Keystone XL is no phantom. It is very real, and it lives in a North Dakota field.

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