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Keystone XL: The Journey of a Pipeline (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

Keystone XL: The Journey of a Pipeline

(Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

Keystone XL: The Journey of a Pipeline

What I found on my road trip along the Keystone pipeline route Add to ...

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 first part of a week-long series.
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'
Part six: Keystone builder's view: 'We take great pride in our work'
View a map of Nathan's journey
Explore more on our Keystone XL pipeline page.

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On Feb. 4, 2013, a U.S. congressman sent out a press release with some startling numbers.

On that day, 1,600 days had elapsed from TransCanada Corp.’s initial application for a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. That was, according to Fred Upton, the Michigan Representative who chairs the energy and commerce committee, longer than the U.S. involvement in the Second World War, between Pearl Harbour and the Japanese surrender. It was longer than the 491 days it took to build the Pentagon and longer than the 1,121-day Lewis and Clark expedition that drew some of the first maps of the American West in the early 1800s.

For Canada, for the U.S., for opponents of the oil sands and supporters of economic expansion, for pro-pipeline premiers and anti-pipeline ranchers, nothing about Keystone XL has been short.

And nowhere is that length more apparent than in the places the 36-inch-wide pipeline intends to traverse. The Keystone XL route is a 3,134-kilometre line through the centre of the continent, across a landscape of ranches and farms; pronghorns and a few remaining bison; verdant fields atop aquifers and tumbleweed-strewn dry lands. From Hardisty, the Alberta oil nexus not far from the oil sands, to the enormous refining complex on the Gulf Coast, it’s a long way down.

That distance is often truncated to two places: the ebullient suits crowded in Calgary office towers, and the fanatic opponents arrested around the White House.

What’s often left unheard is the great middle: the hundreds and thousands of people and places around the line on TransCanada’s maps that, by mere coincidence, also traces the middle of North America. These are the endless vistas of cattle and antelope usually dismissed as “flyover country.” But this is historic country, bisected by the paths of Lewis and Clark, the Mormon settlers, the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express and the early gold miners.

Now, TransCanada is working to carve its own path.

I wanted to see it for myself.

So I rented a car, and pointed it southeast. Over the course of a week, I roughly followed the route of Keystone XL, speaking with landowners, municipal officials, activists, artists, even a preacher. I’ve spent years writing about Keystone XL, and have twice travelled to Nebraska to cover the fury that met TransCanada there. But this was a chance to sketch a far more nuanced portrait of the debate as it unfolds across a remarkable geography.

I didn’t know that large numbers of Alberta and Saskatchewan landowners had teamed up to negotiate terms for TransCanada to cross their land – and won far more money than they were initially offered. I didn’t know that a South Dakota school district had waged a five-year battle to get a pump station on its land. I didn’t know that some First Nations have already taken blockade training to prepare for civil disobedience if pipeline construction begins. I didn’t know how badly TransCanada has angered dozens, if not hundreds, of landowners along the length of the route. I also didn’t know that even some of those ardently opposed expect the pipeline to ultimately get approved. I didn’t know how much care workers take in the seemingly simple process of laying steel pipe in a trench.

Over this week, through several updates on ReportonBusiness.com, I’d like to introduce you to those people and some of their stories. A road trip is, by practical necessity, reductive. I spoke with a few people. I sped past many more without stopping. But I was the beneficiary of tremendous generosity. Pipeline employees worked weekends to guide me through key points in the project. Ranchers fed me meals, handed me home-baked brownies and cinnamon buns, and even offered me a bed to sleep in.

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