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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 ...

In Alberta, meanwhile, the AAPL negotiators did succeed in securing a TransCanada-funded monitor to spot any environmental or construction problems. And they wrested far more from the company: some 10 times its initial offer. (TransCanada calls that number misleading: Agricultural land values go up over time – in Nebraska, they’re up to $12,000 an acre from $4,500 in 2008 – and changes in crop prices can also raise payments.) But Mr. Swenson called the process “very frustrating.”

“I don’t think of them as evil,” he says. “I think they’re there to make the most profit for their shareholders. And it doesn’t matter if they can get away with paying as little as possible to everybody else.”

Hoping for a better deal

On the road west from Scranton, N.D., Highway 12 crests a hill to a view overlooking a field filled with pipe. Row upon row of green-coated pipe, some stamped “MADE IN CANADA,” lies neatly stacked four high. This is the Gascoyne pipe yard, home to 350 kilometres of Keystone XL – nearly a fifth of the pipeline, in 15,000 different segments. This summer will be the third some of it has sat idle here, a local worker says.

The pipe provides one of the most tangible glimpses of the stakes for TransCanada, which has already spent more than $1.8-billion to buy equipment and prepare to build Keystone XL.

Critics hope they can use that Gascoyne pipe yard – and TransCanada’s eagerness to get going – as leverage for better deals. In Nebraska, those along the new route are seeking terms that stand to alter the relationship between pipeline companies and landowners. They have formed the Nebraska Easement Action Team, or NEAT, which has leaned on the expertise of Domina Law Group, a formidable class-action and personal injury firm in the state. Brian Jorde, the lawyer working with NEAT, figures about 30 per cent of those along the new Nebraska route are members; another 14 per cent aren’t prepared to negotiate at all, while others have shown an interest in signing up if TransCanada gets its permit.

Those willing to talk have serious demands. They want negligence shielding for landowners who accidentally damage the pipeline. They want regular payments – if not every year, then every 10. They want the ability to extract more money if the pipeline easement is ever sold.

“We’ll never get it all, we realize that,” Mr. Jorde says. But the stakes are high – not just for Nebraska, but for the entire pipeline industry. If NEAT can persuade TransCanada to give in on some terms, it will clear the way for others to make similar demands in future expropriation battles. It could change the way pipelines are built. “We would be setting precedent, because they know they don’t have to give these things,” Mr. Jorde says.

As for Mr. Thompson, the Nebraska rancher, in a surprising twist he expects Keystone XL to eventually be built. He believes the White House will impose some sort of carbon regulation – and perhaps demand yet another new route through his state – but eventually clear the way.

“I don’t really have the sense that Obama is going to deny the permit,” he says. And though some have threatened thousand-strong blockades, or even violence if construction begins, once approval is granted the “chances of really stopping it are what? Not very good,” Mr. Thompson says.

Still, he can’t keep from shaking his head at it all. TransCanada, it turned out, eventually moved the pipeline well away from the family ranch amid a broader route change through Nebraska.

“Why didn’t [TransCanada] come out of the gate and treat people fairly? They would have had a hell of a lot less resistance,” he says. Instead, “they want to screw you into the ground and force it down your throat. And that just doesn’t work.”

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