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keystone xl: the journey of a pipeline

Cody Math stands next to the fence near where the Keystone XL route crosses the border from Saskatchewan into Montana on April 23, 2013. He is the fifth generation of Maths to live in the area north of Whitewater, Mont. His is the first U.S. house the pipeline route passes by.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 second part of a week-long series.
Part one: What I found on my trip along the Keystone route
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.


The table is set at Laureen Marchand's house with Guinness cheddar, apricot wensleydale, aged Irish monastery cheese – and an equally compelling selection of southern Saskatchewan's finest residents.

Val Marie, Sask., is tiny and isolated. Its nearest gas station is 55 kilometres away. The nearest police officer is 75 kilometres distant. Only 100 people live here. What's remarkable is how many are artists and authors, perched in a tiny town near the line on the map that marks Keystone XL's route. On a pipeline path jammed with people raising cattle and wheat, it's an enclave with a distinctly different bent on the broad energy questions elicited by the project.

"It looks like a scruffy little village, but it's got interesting people in it," Ms. Marchand says.

To prove the point, Ms. Marchand has invited a few people over for dinner on a Monday night. They are two couples. Pam Woodland, a graphic designer and photographer, and Bob Harwood, an author, run Harland Press. They call it "publishing for the love of it." Wes Olson is a long-time national park warden. He is one of the world's top bison experts; he helped populate Alberta bison in Russia and in Saskatchewan's Grasslands National Park. Johane Janelle, an accomplished horse photographer, has long been by his side, her photographs of bison and flowers illustrating the books he has written.

Around this table, there isn't much love for a government that has amended Canada's environmental regime while working to promote new export pipelines. There's not much love, either, for the oil that would flow through Keystone XL. Mr. Olson once spent three days in the oil sands region. He was horrified. "I've seen the devastation. It's mind-blowing to me what us piddly little humans can do to the landscape," he says. "It's dirty oil. There's no question."

In Val Marie, the pipeline also travels past a place struggling against recent changes wrought by the Conservative government. The scrapping of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration has ended the nationally-mandated protection of large swaths of grazing pastures, and cast the shadow of private ownership over areas long vital to local ranchers whose livelihood has been staked on public land. Parks Canada cuts have also prompted two families to leave Val Marie.

"That's huge when you only have 100 people living here," Ms. Janelle says.

Through Mr. Olson's eyes, the landscape is different. Two centuries ago, so many bison roamed what is now Western Canada that one exploration party was "trapped for 10 days in their camp while one herd of bison walked by. Tens of thousands of animals, for days on end." I had always thought of the bison as being primarily exterminated by sport hunters. They were, instead, largely harvested to support North America's industrial revolution, Mr. Olson says, their skins used to make leather belts to turn machinery. "Probably 80 per cent of the decimation was related to the hide trade," he says.

It's a reminder that Keystone XL, if it's built, will dig into a landscape already undeniably altered by the forces of development. In Alberta, the first few hundred kilometres of the route parallel Highway 41, the Buffalo Trail.

Other things are changing, too – including the makeup of the population. In Val Marie, some "11 or 12 per cent of the population are artists," Ms. Marchand says. "It's a community of ranchers and artists and science professionals. And that's unusual."

The ranchers come with the broad sweep of grazing land that feeds cattle spread across the surrounding fields. The science professionals come with Grasslands National Park, which sits just outside Val Marie. And the artists come, in part, with $750 fixer-upper homes and, in part, with Ms. Marchand, who moved to Val Marie 3 1/2 years ago to start Grasslands Gallery. The gallery now sits amid a small but burgeoning outpost of creativity on the Saskatchewan prairie.

At dinner, talk turns to back Keystone XL, and a debate erupts about the role personal energy use has in supporting the oil sands, and what the way forward might be.

"The pipeline in itself is the symptom of a problem that we have in how we live our lives – as though we have a right to destroy the basic planetary being that we live on," Ms. Woodland says.

I ask Ms. Marchand her own thoughts on Keystone XL.

"I don't really have an opinion on the pipeline," she says. "At the same time, when there was enough noise to stop the original route" – a reference to pipeline changes mandated by the White House following protests in Nebraska – "I was cheering here in the middle of nowhere."



The plains bison has somehow managed to get inside the wooden fence surrounding the new campground in Grasslands National Park. The sight of a great dark beast meandering among the picnic tables might be cause for panic. But it's early season, and the campers haven't yet arrived. A gate is opened, the bison cautiously strolls across a gravel road, then trots across the wind-blown prairie landscape to join a small clump of its peers on the hills.

It's such a low-key scene that it takes a moment to recall how singularly remarkable this is: bison wandering a landscape that was for many years stripped of the species. By some estimates, as few as eight bison were left in Canada by the late 1800s. But since 2006, they're back strolling the native prairie here in southern Saskatchewan, and doing so well – from a 71-head original herd to 312 last year and likely more than 400 this year once all of the new arrivals are counted – that plans are already being laid to trim the population.

I've come here because the Keystone XL pipeline will pass within five kilometres of the park boundary. I don't expect Parks Canada staff to weigh in on the pipeline, given they're federal employees and the Canadian government has proven itself ardently supportive of the project. But a visit here is a chance to see the pipeline route's ecological history – in places preserved, in places in the process of being reborn.

Grasslands is an odd park: It has no mountains, no glaciers, no spectacular water features, few of the eye-popping landscape icons that Canadians tend to associate with our protected areas. It's a young park, too: A final park agreement was only signed in 1988, and its borders have slowly expanded since then. And with "grass" in the name – is there anything more pedestrian to an average Canadian? – it has none of the name draw of a Banff or Jasper.

Grasslands, it seems, is a bit like much of the Keystone XL route: largely ignored by all but those who live there.

Not even friends and relatives of nearby residents tend to visit – an unfortunate reality Parks Canada is now seeking to amend, with a broad strategy that includes hiking trails and a lovely new campground, complete with giant inverted fish-hook-like structures that serve as lantern-hangers on the treeless plains.

"We want to become the local jewel," says Colin Schmidt, a park product development officer who is taking me on a driving tour.

Bison are, for obvious reasons, one of the big draws. But the most entertaining – and in some ways, the most important – critter may actually be the black-tailed prairie dog. They congregate in "dog towns," where hundreds of dirt mounds litter a landscape that looks like it's been blasted by a cosmic shotgun. Some of the most intriguing aspects of these towns are invisible, the underground series of interlocking tunnels and living spaces, from bedrooms to nanny rooms and pantries.

Greener grass around dog towns provides grazing for pronghorns and bison. Sage grouse use them as courtship dancing grounds. The burrows themselves are used by burrowing owls, rattlesnakes and black-footed ferrets. Those ferrets are, like the bison, an almost-dead species attempting a comeback. Some 50 ferrets have been reintroduced to Grasslands since 2009; by last summer, only 12 were left.

"It's pretty hard for them to acclimate into this new environment," says Adrian Sturch, Grasslands manager of resource conservation.

But those few animals remain the only black-footed ferrets in the entire country, and every year about 30 people come here from across Canada to count the remnants for two weeks in August. They volunteer for long night-time shifts, wandering for hours with spotlights and hoping to catch a tell-tale reflection in the dark.

"People hike 10 kilometres to see if they can find eye shine," Mr. Sturch says.

As we drive, Mr. Schmidt glances at the time.

"We've already seen a long-billed curlew, a horned lark, the black-tailed prairie dog, sharp-tailed grouse. And we've basically been here for 10 minutes," he says. "That definitely is one of the things that makes this park so special."



There is a barbed-wire fence. There is a ceaseless wind pushing tumbleweed across late-winter grasses. Sometimes, there are cattle grazing. And there are several buildings that make up a compressor station on a 1980s-era natural gas pipeline, the only indication that there is something important about this utterly lonesome place.

It is this exact spot where the Keystone XL pipeline route moves from Canada into the United States. By just about any measure, this small stretch of isolated land is forgettable. But these have become, in many respects, Keystone XL's single most important few metres. It is because of this border crossing that TransCanada Corp. has been obligated to seek a presidential permit and submit itself to review by the U.S. Department of State. It's a review now nearing five years that has exposed the company to a political opposition so loud that it remains an open question whether the White House will ever allow TransCanada to bury its pipe where the barbed wire now stands.

Cody Math can't figure out what the fuss is about. It is, he says again and again, "plumb goofy."

"I don't know why people are against this thing. It's not landowners. It's the liberal left wing," he says. "They'd rather run their cars on wind or something."

Mr. Math is not a central figure in the Keystone XL debate. On the day I stop by, he's not even particularly thrilled to be talking; he's just come back from a bachelor bender in Las Vegas. But he is the first American whose house the pipeline will pass by. He lives just three kilometres from the border crossing; the Keystone XL route comes within about 800 metres of the place where he and his wife are expecting the sixth-generation of Math to live in this part of Montana.

The natural gas pipeline, called Northern Border, has made them familiar with life next to buried energy. Thirty years after it was built, Northern Border's right-of-way is still discernible: The grass grows differently, and crops on top of the pipe ripen earlier. When something went wrong last year at the compressor station – he's not sure whether it was a leak or fire of some sort – it produced a jet-like roar so loud it could be heard in his basement.

Mr. Math also tried to have TransCanada move a Keystone XL pumping station from its current location about 1.5 kilometres from his home. He doesn't like how it is positioned in an oddly-shaped field that is already difficult to till, and he is worried it will introduce an industrial hum to a landscape now notable for its silence. He failed to persuade the company.

He's also irritated by the weather sent down from north of the border: "The snow comes sideways from Canada," he says. "It can get pretty bad."

Yet neither blizzards nor pipeline problems have soured people here on Keystone XL. Brent Anderson raises cattle on the land where the route first enters the U.S. "We need oil, so we might as well get it from there" – he means Canada – "rather than across the pond. I don't have a problem with it," he says.

Mr. Math feels the same. He lives at the end of 30 kilometres of unmarked gravel road, 250 kilometres from the nearest Wal-Mart store and even farther from the closest interstate highway. There aren't many places as distant from mainstream America as his house. He began dating his wife after reaching out on Facebook, which he accesses via satellite Internet. His wife pulls recipes from Pinterest. They do much of their shopping online now; even here, Amazon makes two-day deliveries. He doesn't like the idea of impeding cultural or economic progress, which has so tangibly improved his own life.

"As long as this pumping station is not loud, I don't care. And they say it will be okay," he says. Building new industrial development is "the way it's supposed to be," he says. "Isn't the point of the human race to move forward?"

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