Protests or not, they have a pipeline to build

Part 1: Tree sitters have sparked tension in East Texas over Keystone XL
Part 2
: When a multibillion-dollar pipeline runs through your backyard
Part 3
: TransCanada’s massive effort to bring Keystone XL to the Texas Coast.

MOUNT PLEASANT — The teams start rolling out before daybreak, a rumbling cacophony orchestrated under floodlights and black skies.

They fan out, men carrying hardhats walking past trucks on the move, busloads of workers, and trailers carrying four-wheel-drive carts and heavy machinery.

About 700 workers building TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline in Texas move out from a Mount Pleasant lot every morning in a mobilization fit for a war zone. The size of the effort, for just one segment of Keystone XL, is part of TransCanada’s sophisticated, 4,000-person operation to dig through nearly 500 miles of land and install a 36-inch diameter oil pipeline that will bring a surge of crude to Texas refineries. It will connect with the oil hub of Cushing, Okla., and eventually will be one piece of a 1,700-mile pipeline stretching to Alberta.

Although work has been interrupted several times by protesters in East Texas who have locked themselves to equipment, stood in front of moving machinery and climbed into trees in the path of Keystone XL, the Canadian pipeline company has soldiered on.

If TransCanada is able to move forward uninhibited, it will complete in late 2013 the first piece of one of the most significant pipelines in U.S. history. If it is delayed, the company, which says it already may have incurred more than $500,000 in additional costs because of interruptions from protesters, could be on the hook for millions of dollars because of broken commitments to oil shippers.

It is moving full-steam ahead to make sure that doesn’t happen, cutting through woods and digging up farmland as crews hustle to assemble and lay pipe that will be able to move 700,000 barrels of crude per day, more than the daily oil production rate in booming North Dakota, the nation’s second-largest oil producer behind Texas.

“This is a lot more sophisticated than people think,” said TransCanada spokesman Jim Prescott, as he stood in front of crews carrying out a delicate choreography to lower a quarter-mile stretch of Keystone XL into a trench about 10 feet deep.

The process of actually putting pipe into the ground is complicated, involving four moving cranes with rolling cradles that slide down a stretch of assembled pipeline at different angles, easing it into the trench as the steel bends and groans.

“The pipe is remarkably flexible,” Prescott said.

The company takes pains to ensure that welds along the pipeline are intact, scanning each one with an X-ray or ultrasound and then testing the line again once it is in place, he said.

Those efforts don’t calm environmentalists, who argue that Keystone XL is bound to leak at some point, an event that could release oil into surrounding pastures and water supplies. Activists say, however, that the biggest environmental concern is not just a leak, but a release of the type of oil Keystone XL will eventually carry — crude from Canadian oil sands.

Oil sands crude can be especially damaging, they say, because it has heavy components that can sink in water and cause long-term harm. A 2010 spill of oil sands crude from Alberta into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River has become the most expensive on-shore oil spill in U.S. history, resulting in a cleanup that has lasted more than two years and cost more than $800 million.

TransCanada argues that Keystone XL has had to meet dozens of additional standards that will make it the safest pipeline ever built. The company also says that oil sands crude is just as safe as any other heavy crude to move through pipelines.

And with the continent producing more oil from shale and oil sands for which there is plenty of demand, pipelines will be the safest and most environmentally friendly way to move it, Prescott said.

Although TransCanada’s work to install the pipeline is not pretty, involving cutting through lush landscapes and sometimes burning foliage that is not marketable for sale, TransCanada’s efforts will also involve substantial environmental restoration and its crews have been careful not to disturb sensitive areas, Prescott said.

But before the pipeline can even be put into the ground, several steps in TransCanada’s assembly operation have to move smoothly. Once land is cleared, typically in a 100-foot wide space, pieces of 80-foot-long pipe are trucked through small towns and county roads onto the construction zone and lined up for assembly.

Not all stretches of the pipe are straight, however, and engineers pass through to mark portions that have to be shaped on-site. Roaring machines squeeze and bend rigid steel into banana-shaped curves, allowing pipe to snake through land, as it had to do in Winnsboro to move around a tree village constructed by protesters who refused to move out of the pipeline’s path.

The line is then welded together, scanned for integrity, touched up and then prepped for lowering into the ground as large yellow excavators dig into the earth, separating layers of soil along the pipe trench.

“It’s like taking a layered cake apart and setting each layer aside and then putting that cake back together again,” Prescott said of the process, intended to protect delicate topsoil.

In an area where the pipe’s path runs through wetlands, workers placed a layer of wood beside the dig area to keep earth pulled out of the trench from mixing with adjacent soil.

Such efforts do little, pipeline opponents say, to make up for the clearing of nature, combined with the result of a pipeline transporting oil sands crude across thousands of miles of land.

Aside from moving the oil, the pipeline will also create a lucrative incentive for more production of oil sands crude, which oil companies acknowledge involves substantial energy, water and emissions, the critics say.

“I don’t think anybody’s sugar coating it to try to say that this is honey,” Prescott said. “It’s heavy oil. We get that. But the technology, in terms of producing it, is improving all the time and the technology to refine it is improving all the time as well.”

The oil, Prescott said, will be produced and used as fossil fuel anyway.

“The fact of the matter is the oil sands will be developed,” he said. “Stopping the Keystone XL pipeline system is not a zero-sum game.”