Keystone XL Pipeline construction a lifeline for many workers
BY ROD WALTON World Staff Writer
Sunday, March 03, 2013
3/03/13 at 7:37 AM
Local companies are major players in a vital industry.
Related Story: Keystone XL Pipeline opponents say it threatens environment in multiple ways
PRAGUE - Love it or hate it, the Keystone XL Pipeline is making its way to the sea.
The march to the Gulf Coast, however, is not analogous to General Sherman rushing to Savannah but rather like Quentin Tarantino making one of his movies. The project is non-linear, full of parallel storylines and intensely debated in many circles.
The Keystone XL offers either the right kind of imported oil or a potentially thick and sour environmental disaster, depending on who's doing the classifying. For the pipeliners actually doing the planning, trenching, lowering and welding, well, it's all about the economic impact on them.
Each of the three spreads of Keystone's southern leg from Cushing to the Gulf Coast, which began work late last year, is spending about $2 million a month on construction costs alone. The overall $12 billion project has helped revive a pipelining industry that was relatively dormant until only a few years ago.
"People say it's supposed to keep thousands of people working. Well, it does," said John Steward, an assistant construction manager for Keystone owner TransCanada Corp., who led the Tulsa World on a tour along portions of the Oklahoma route.
"We have kept people working through the winter, when usually it's kind of slow. Some guys have been working with me for four years now. Their families depend on this work."
Federal regulators approved the southern leg of the Keystone XL last summer. The work is running concurrently in three spreads, each employing about 850 people in every phase from digging earth to bending sections of pipe to backfilling a minimum four feet atop the finished joints.
Think logistical nightmare with zero tolerance for error by any of the approximately 50 crews per spread. Error gets people hurt and gives ammo to the pipeline's enemies.
"There's a lot of moving parts," TransCanada spokesman James Prescott noted.
Prescott joined the group touring several concurrent parts of the Keystone construction one day recently. The group, which included a reporter, photographer, lobbyist and legislator, saw an orchestrated digging effort to create a route underneath Salt Creek in Lincoln County and watched two massive machines lower a nearby pipeline section.
Earth movers worked in tandem, stacked from the creek's edge to the top of a hill, creating space for pipe that will lie many yards beneath the waterway.
"They started digging today, and in 48 hours the pipe will be laid," said Jim Dunlap, a former state legislator from Bartlesville who now does lobbying work for TransCanada at the state capitol.
'A tough little project'
Many people, including celebrities and environmentalists nationwide, disagree about the impact of the Keystone XL. What cannot be contested, however, is the complexity of the project, from the directional drilling to the pipe bending and X-rayed joining by "prima donna" welders, as Steward jokingly called them.
When they're not dealing with logistical challenges such as creeks and threatened species, crews sometimes have to stop for protesters who have chained themselves to a piece of equipment or a pipeline. Even so, the workers who talked to the Tulsa World seemed joyful about the experience.
"It's all good," tie-in crew foreman Richard Elson said. "This is a good project, a tough little project."
The Keystone XL is one of many new projects going nationwide, but then again much of the nation's pipeline infrastructure is 60 to 70 years old. The industry stagnated for ages, forcing union members like Elson to stretch from paycheck to paycheck.
"The Local 798 union (based in Tulsa) predicts this year its members will put in 8 million man hours," he added, crediting the Keystone for much of that. "Some years we didn't even work a million."
The 36-inch pipeline will carry some Bakken Shale oil but mostly Canadian oil sands crude - a thick bitumen that is mined or steamed out of its reservoirs.
The sour, thick oil will pass through Cushing's giant storage hub and eventually arrive at Gulf Coast refineries, where supporters say it will offset OPEC crude and also bring down the price gap between domestic and London Brent varieties of oil.
Yet even finishing this southern leg later this year completes only the second of a three-part story. A middle leg from Steele City, Neb., to Cushing became operational in 2011, and TransCanada is still waiting on U.S. approval for the section running from Canada to Steele City.
Obama rejected the original route because of concerns shared by Nebraska Republican governor Dave Heineman and others that the Keystone ran through the Sand Hills and over the vast Ogallala Aquifer.
Keystone offered a new route that got Heineman's approval, and the U.S. State Department indicated Friday that the pipeline was likely safer than other options for moving that oil sands crude. In the meantime, TransCanada is pushing hard to complete the southern leg at a cost of $2.3 billion.
The pipeline route runs approximately 195 miles from its Cushing terminal to Delta County, Texas, then heads south to Diboll all the way to Port Arthur in the Gulf refinery region of southeast Texas.
Community of workers
Crews jump to and fro, depending on which section of trench and pipe is ready, but the one constant along the 110-feet right of way is safety-conscious chaos.
"We're leapfrogging around," said Scott Steinbach, a safety coordinator for Michels Pipeline Construction. "We're hiring every single day. This is one the biggest projects I've been on."
Pipeliners adapt to accommodate family when they can, home schooling at trailer parks. Home is where the electric hookup is.
Prague certainly has felt the impact of the Keystone XL. Trucks carrying pipes rumble through every 20 minutes or more, while hundreds of workers and their wives eat lunch at local restaurants such as Chadder's in downtown Prague.
Chadder's owner and manager Chad Bryant, who opened the diner last summer, is happy to have the pipeliners there.
"They've been really friendly, but they talked about past towns which raised prices while they were there," Bryant said. "Not only did we welcome them, but they seem to appreciate what we've done to help them."
Keystone XL timeline
2005: TransCanada and ConocoPhillips announce plans for Keystone Pipeline from Canadian oil sands to Illinois refineries.
2008: Construction begins on original leg of the Keystone.
2009: TransCanada buys out ConocoPhillips' stake for $750 million to become sole owner of the project.
2010: Original Keystone line placed into service. XL extension from Steele City, Neb., to Cushing begins construction.
March 2011: Keystone XL Steele City, Neb.-Cushing leg becomes operational.
November 2011: President Obama delays decision on northern Keystone XL leg due to environmental concerns.
March 2012: Obama visits pipe yard in Ripley, near Stillwater, and touts recent drilling success and future needs.
July 2012: Keystone's southern leg from Cushing to Gulf gains approval from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
August 2012: Construction begins on part of southern leg.
November 2012: TransCanada begins work on Oklahoma portion of the southern leg.
January: Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman approves new route around Sand Hills. Northern leg still needs federal OK.
Late summer 2013: Projected period for finishing Keystone XL construction. Testing and line fill to follow.
End of 2013: TransCanada hopes Keystone XL will be operational.
Original Print Headline: Keystone of jobs
Rod Walton 918-581-8457
A worker steps carefully by the trench as heavy equipment works to dig out a creek for the Keystone Pipeline as construction continues on a stretch near Prague recently. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Workers use sidebooms to lift and carry a section of 36-inch-wide pipe into a trench where it will be welded to other sections of the Keystone XL Pipeline near Prague. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World