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keystone xl: the journey of a pipeline

Pipeline construction is an impressive thing to behold. The right-of-way – at some 35 metres wide, it’s broader than many country roads – is striking, as is the vast amount of equipment arrayed along its length.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

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 sixth part of a week-long series.
Part one: What I found on my trip along the Keystone route
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'
View a map of Nathan's journey
Explore more on our Keystone XL pipeline page.


They came running out of the woods in camouflage, days after the Boston Marathon bombing. They were activists, but it was like "they were going to ambush" the workers installing the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, says John Steward, assistant project manager for the top 314-kilometre section, or spread, of the project.

"So we're scared, you know."

In the world of pipeline construction, intruders are hardly a normal workplace risk. But then, very little about Keystone XL has been normal. What started as one project has now been split apart – and while the stalled northern leg continues to hog public attention, the southern leg, called the Gulf Coast Project, is rapidly approaching completion. By later this year, it will be pumping oil from Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Tex.

TransCanada Corp. offered to take me out for a look, picking me up in a helicopter, flying me over parts of the right-of-way, and then landing near a spot where pipe was physically being lowered into the trench. After thousands of kilometres of talking about Keystone XL in the abstract, it was a chance to see it actually take form.

Pipeline construction is an impressive thing to behold. From the air, the sheer size of the right-of-way – at some 35 metres wide, it's broader than many country roads – is striking, as is the vast amount of equipment arrayed along its length. TransCanada has come under fire for inflating jobs estimates – but it's clear it takes major labour to build a pipeline.

What also grows clear is the care that goes into planning a pipeline path. The route dips and jogs, going out of its way to bypass an airport and dipping out of sight by a high school and near large rivers. In sensitive areas, TransCanada doesn't open the earth to place the pipe. It drills beneath it, leaving the surface untouched. At smaller watercourses, the company first builds temporary bridges, waiting for the right time to dig through. Then, it completes the operation in 24 hours – opening the ground, installing the pipe, covering it back up – to minimize the disturbance.

The great majority of the pipe, of course, is installed using more traditional, and far more invasive, methods. But here, too, the care is notable. Among the first crews to pass through are fencers, who install reinforcements so "so when we cut [people's] fence or take their fence down, it doesn't loosen up the rest of the fence," Mr. Steward says. Trees are cut, then topsoil is pushed back in a dike parallel to the pipe direction, so it can be replaced later.

Before it's laid, each piece of pipe is kept from touching the ground – or other pipe – using either wooden stands or rope wound around its outer circumference. Close attention is paid to the coating. Pipelines don't use stainless steel – it would be far too expensive. They keep rust at bay with an outer coating, and maintaining a perfect cover in that coating is crucial to avoiding corrosion. So the coating is checked numerous times.

The final check is done with a "jeep," a circular slinky-like device that wraps around the pipe and is slowly walked along its length. Every time the jeep detects a problem, the entire crew lowering the pipe into the ground – dozens of people with many pieces of equipment – stops. The problem area, which could be pinhole-sized, is sanded, re-coated and then bonded into place with a heat gun.

Then the pipe itself is gently lowered. It does not sit on the ground: Rather, it sits on foam pillows installed to give it a safe resting place.

Mr. Steward is a third-generation pipeliner; his father was chief inspector on a team that broke the world record for most consecutive welds in one day – around 200 – on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

"I wish they would understand the process we do to protect water bodies," he says. "And our installation – we take great pride in our work."

He's also eager to point out the good they do for those they encounter. Local shops put up signs beckoning pipeliners, eager for the business they bring. They try to do good for those along the route, too. In December, they mounted a large gift program.

"We had a toy drive and bought toys for Christmas – over 900 or 1,000 of us," Mr. Steward says.

Put it all together, he says, and the pipeline crews digging up pastures and running heavy equipment through backyards often have surprisingly good relations with those they encounter.

"Very very rarely do we ever see where [landowners] weren't happy with the people that come through," he says. benevolent "The co-operation and the respect that we give to the landowners – they see it."



Vern Yu doesn't want to say it. It would be unprofessional, or indecorous, or just contrary to what Enbridge Inc. executives are supposed to say about their arch-rival.

But it only takes a quick glance at a map to figure out that Enbridge is quietly assembling pipeline puzzle pieces that, when they are hooked together from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, look an awful lot like another project – one that has been anything but quiet. In fact, you could be forgiven for asking if TransCanada's Keystone XL is even needed, given what Enbridge is planning.

"I don't want to be on record saying that Keystone XL is not necessary," says Mr. Yu, Enbridge's vice-president of business development and market development.

Why not?

In part, it's because many of the oil companies and refineries that use Enbridge have also signed up for Keystone XL. In part, it's because many believe enough oil sands crude is coming that both options will be needed. But perhaps most importantly, pipeline companies have grown leery of wishing ill on their rivals, because if protesters succeed in undermining TransCanada's plans, chances are they will do the same for Enbridge.

Still, it's clear Enbridge is chasing the same business that has landed TransCanada's Keystone XL project in all sorts of trouble – and it likes the fact it hasn't gotten much attention.

"Obviously we know we're just as big a player as they are. We just like to stay out of the limelight a little bit," Mr. Yu says.

Enbridge's ambitions don't look like much for now: an empty patch of grass in the heart of its huge south terminal at Cushing, the bucolic Oklahoma town that calls itself the "pipeline crossroads of the world." The grass is in the middle of a giant network of Enbridge oil storage, with roughly 90 large oil tanks that play an important role in setting the price of oil in North America.

Mike Jenkins, an Enbridge operator, points out the spot.

"This area right here is where Flanagan South is going to be," he says. There's no "if" in his statement for a reason: Pre-construction work is already under way, and construction is expected to begin before July. It's expected to be complete by mid-2014. Other parts of the plan will be done before then. Keystone XL, meanwhile, is still waiting for approval.

Part of the reason the Enbridge plan has received less attention than Keystone XL lies in its complicated structure. It's not one direct pipeline. Rather, it's a series of upgrades and new lines: an expansion of Alberta Clipper, from Alberta to Superior, Wis., at the western tip of Lake Superior. Other pipes connect Superior to Flanagan, Ill., southwest of Chicago. Flanagan South will run southwest to Cushing, and the Seaway pipeline – which is being twinned – will complete the link to the Gulf Coast by next April.

By the time all of the different expansions are done, "we're going to be able to provide, say, around 900,000 to one million barrels a day into the U.S. Gulf Coast," Mr. Yu says. Keystone XL, by comparison, has an 830,000 b/d capacity.

The two companies' projects are very different. XL stands for "Express Line," and Keystone travels a direct route angling toward the Gulf Coast. The web of Enbridge pipe takes a massive detour to the U.S. Midwest. Barrels will get to market faster through TransCanada. What Enbridge offers is choice: Its route touches much of the continent's refining capacity.

There is, however, a catch. The hurdles facing TransCanada have largely arisen through its need to obtain a presidential permit to cross the border into the U.S.

The Enbridge plan needs something similar. While Alberta Clipper already has a presidential permit, it's "silent on the volume that we're allowed to move," Mr. Yu says. To expand Clipper, Enbridge is currently "re-doing our environmental impact statement to take into account a higher volume."

Does that mean Enbridge needs to reapply for its permit – possibly exposing it to a Keystone-style roller-coaster ride? After all, the world has, in very short order, undergone major change for pipeline companies. In 1951, the hearing into what is now the Trans Mountain pipeline – which has since operated with few incidents – lasted a single day, with a decision released three days later. As recently as 2009, National Energy Board hearings into the Canadian leg of Keystone XL lasted 11 days. A decision was released within five months.

So what does the future hold for Alberta Clipper?

"I think the best way to describe it is we're amending our current presidential permit," Mr. Yu says. Does that amendment need White House approval?

"It's unclear."

How about the U.S. Department of State?

It will need to pass, he says, "through State, for sure."