LINCOLN, NEB. -- South Dakota rancher Bret Clanton heard a Canadian oil pipeline company, TransCanada, was stockpiling pipe across the border in North Dakota. In 2011, he drove from his ranch to take a look.
At the top of a hill east of Scranton, N.D. -- near a ghost town named Gascoyne -- trucks unloaded pipe into a pasture. That field is now filled with rows and rows of mostly aqua-green pipe, some stamped with the words "made in Canada." It's where the pipe has sat ever since, waiting for the Obama administration to give the green light so it can be buried in American soil, filled with oil from Alberta, Canada, and sent to Texas refineries.
The future of the 230 or so miles of unused pipe in rural North Dakota has caused consternation for environmentalists, libertarians, union workers, oil companies, farmers, ranchers, governors and politicians -- from the lowliest county commissioner to the president.
Should a Canadian company be allowed to put 1,179 miles of this pipe in the ground and run 830,000 barrels of oil per day through it?
The question has vexed America since TransCanada applied for its permits in September 2008. Clanton is deeply interested in the outcome, since three miles of the pipeline would cross his cattle ranch near Buffalo, S.D.
Clanton occasionally visits the pipe yard and takes pictures of the pipe -- a pile so big he can't fit it in one frame. He figures TransCanada chose Gascoyne as a storage spot because it has a railroad spur once used for a coal mine. The few times Clanton has visited the pipe yard and taken photos, a little white pickup stopped by to keep watch.
"You could drive right in the middle of it if you wanted," Clanton said. "I don't think they ever expected that it was going to end up laying there for three years."
In fact, some of the pipe has since been painted with white latex to protect it from the elements.
The Gascoyne pipe yard is not fenced, but TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard says it is "secure."
Howard says another 250 miles of pipe is stored at a manufacturer's facility in Regina, Sask., and the rest is at a manufacturing plant in Little Rock, Ark. The ultimate destination of the Gascoyne pipes hasn't been determined, but if the project is approved, it will end up in Montana, South Dakota or Nebraska.
To some, the fact TransCanada bought and stored much of the pipe for Keystone XL before getting all of its permits approved reeks of hubris.
"TransCanada was arrogant about eminent domain and arrogant about buying all the pipe," says Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, which has organized opposition to the pipeline in Nebraska. "They just assumed they would be welcomed with open arms like in 2008. We all know now about a thing called tar sands [oil], property rights and the risks."
For Clanton, the pipes are a symbol of a fight he's been waging since he first saw surveyors on his land about six years ago. These surveyors "weren't always good map readers" and "had trespassing issues," he said.
"They wouldn't tell you who they were or what they were doing," he said. He's heard from about eight land agents since then -- agents he calls "a piece of work."
"I would not wish that process on anybody," he says. "They can say and do anything to procure your signature because they're not accountable to anybody. ... I think they're hiring them out of a bar in Tulsa, Okla. They're not the brightest bulbs on the block."
Similar to the way one of TransCanada's land agents in Nebraska also happened to be a preacher, Clanton says they've sent a few agents waving Jesus flags on their way into town.
"Christians fell right in behind 'em," he says. He's a Christian, too, he said, but he wasn't buying it. He saw Native American land agents materialize to speak to members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
"They know what they're doing," he says of TransCanada. "My issue on this whole thing is my state, South Dakota, gave the power of condemnation to a foreign, for-profit company. Your average person doesn't understand the process that's taken place."
In his latest visit to the pipe yard, Clanton saw "an endless line of trucks coming in and out," and he believes they're picking up fracking sand used to release oil in North Dakota's booming Bakken oil fields.
The Keystone XL wouldn't go through North Dakota -- in fact, it seems to avoid North Dakota, even though TransCanada says one-fourth of the pipeline capacity will be used for light crude oil from the Bakken. That oil would be picked up at an "on ramp" in Baker, Mont., that TransCanada calls Bakken Marketlink.
But Clanton is skeptical of that plan. As controversy over the Keystone XL heated up, TransCanada highlighted its plans to transport Bakken oil, but Clanton remembers how the company had to be muscled into picking up the North Dakota oil.
TransCanada has a number of places where it will store or stage equipment along a proposed route while awaiting approval, which normally takes 18 to 24 months, so the company committed to producing materials such as pipes and pump stations "to make sure things were available in a timely fashion," Howard said.
"Keystone XL was applied for in 2008 and was on track to complete the regulatory review process in 2010," Howard said in an emailed comment. "The BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico and the Enbridge spill in Michigan changed the regulatory and political landscape related to our project."
But the pipeline equipment had already been ordered. As it was completed, TransCanada took possession, Howard said.
After the pipe is laid, he said, it is subjected to "rigorous, internal inspections" with specialized equipment to detect even the smallest imperfections.
Clanton says the longer the permitting process drags on, "the scarier it's getting."
"All I ever wanted to be is a cowman until this was thrust upon me," he said. He's now a member of Dakota Rural Action, which helps landowners negotiate easements and land restoration.
Clanton has always thought of himself as an "ultraconservative Republican" but since the Keystone XL came along, he's been called lots of names, including an eco-terrorist.
"I don't know what the hell I am anymore," he says.
Deena Winter is a reporter with Nebraska Watchdog, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.