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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pipeline Through the Heartland: TransCanada on the Farm

[Originally published 2009.09.04 07:30 a.m.]
The road west to the Sibson farm in Miner County. Look closely, and just below the horizon, you might see a pale green line...

...pipeline. 80-foot sections of oil pipeline, stretching a thousand miles in either direction, right through the heart of the Sibsons' land.

Mike and Sue Sibson live in western Miner County. They refer to their land, now sliced in half by the Keystone Pipeline, as their "homestead" of 30-some years.

"Homestead" is a powerful word. It recalls where our people came from: traveling across wild land, picking one spot out of a million possibilities, staking survival—financial and physical—on their best guess that this patch of land might produce a good crop. Our ancestors came in response to a simple promise from the government: build a house, grow crops, tough it out, and the land is yours.

The Sibsons thought the land they worked for was theirs. They chose a spot twelve miles out of town, built a home, paid the bills with corn, wheat, and cattle. By sweat and wits, they earned their farm. They figured it was theirs, plain and simple...

South Dakota farmer Mike Sibson in front of a section of the pipeline waiting to be welded and buried on the Sibsons' land.
...until last year, when a foreign corporation said, "No, actually, we can claim your land anytime we want," and the government to which the Sibsons pay their taxes replied, "Yup, sure can."

"I'm one of the only guys who can say he had a 2000-mile pipeline shoved up his ass," says Mike Sibson.

The Sibsons were one of several South Dakota families to sign on to a lawsuit last year trying to prevent TransCanada from using eminent domain to seize easements from landowners along the proposed Keystone pipeline route. The landowners struggled just to find a lawyer willing to take the case; Sioux Falls lawyer and legislator Scott Heidepriem signed on to fight the losing battle. The Sibsons and other litigants ultimately cut their losses and settled on confidential terms. It was as good a deal as they could probably get, but, as Sibson says, this taking of his land was still against his will.

Mike and his wife Sue were willing to give me a tour of the work site across their land. The Sibson home happens to be where the Keystone pipeline comes closest to my home, about 25 crow-flying miles east in Lake County.

Work crews started moving earth on the Sibson farm a few weeks ago. Crews skimmed off the topsoil first, heaping it in a miles-long berm on the west side of TransCanada's 150-foot construction easement. That digging cost the Sibsons a strip of wheat, though Mike doesn't blame TransCanada on that count: he knew at planting time he was gambling that the wheat would mature before the workers arrived. This cool summer didn't help the wheat beat the construction foreman's clock.

Plank road through wetlands on pipeline route
The crews have taken some measures to protect the land and water along the pipeline route. Wetland boundaries are marked with small signs; the pipeline runs through one such sometimes boggy area on the Sibsons' land. Crews lay big timbers to make plank roads through the wetlands for the big machines to drive on. That's good for the land, preventing the trucks and such from tearing deep ruts into the wet ground. It's also good for the project schedule, since no one wants to spend all day towing equipment out of the mud.

The wetlands markers also prohibit refueling of vehicles and machinery; if any diesel or other fuel is going to be spilt—and you're going to spill a little when you're operating machinery—it at least won't splash straight into the marshes and sloughs along the pipeline route.

No-refueling zone near wetlands on pipeline route.

"Made in India": markings inside one section of Keystone pipeline
Then comes the pipeline: 80-foot sections of Indian steel, laid out in a line all across South Dakota as it has been or will be across six other states and three provinces. As we toured the construction zone on the Sibsons' land, the welding units were just making their way south from Pump Station 22, one of four stations in South Dakota that will keep TransCanada's oil flowing at pressures up to 1,440 psi. As the welders approach, the insides of each section are scoured. Then workers grind the ends of each section to make sure the weld can take, joining these massive sections. The backhoes will follow to dig the trench for the pipeline. The welding machines then trundle forward in big shacks around the pipe to shelter the sections during joining.

Pipeline welders heading south.
Once the pipeline is in, the earth movers return to dig the trench. The pipeline is then rolled intact into its final resting place. Before the trench is filled, though, installers take one more precaution to protect the wetlands. If the pipeline were simply buried and left empty, awaiting completion of the entire line and the pumping of oil, that hollow steel might float back up to the surface in the mushy areas. To keep the pipeline down in the wetlands, crews will ease big concrete weights down on top of the pipeline before restoring the earth. Mike referred to them as "saddles," although that term seems to get things backwards: rather than the pipeline "riding" the saddles, these saddles ride the pipeline.

Pipeline "saddles" awaiting installation

"Saddle blanket" that will cushion the pipeline from the concrete on top of it

These saddles come with saddle blankets. The round inside of each concrete block is lined with a rough, fibrous layer of insulation, an inch thick, maybe more. That blanket keeps the concrete from damaging the pipeline when the saddles are lowered atop the pipeline. That blanket also prevents damage if the pipeline or the saddles shift at all, whether from the fluid dynamics of the high-pressure oil within or the shifting land (freezing, thawing, future tractor action) without.

The pipeline is an impressive engineering feat. Mike says he's heard the Keystone pipeline may be the biggest single construction project in the world right now. The total price tag for this line is $5.2 billion; add in the proposed Keystone XL extension and the total reaches $12 billion US. That's a lot of money moving a lot of earth, steel, and eventually oil. From a pure engineering perspective—and from the kid-at-heart-seeing-big-machines perspective—watching the pipeline go in is fascinating, like watching the Pyramids being built.

Mike Sibson takes me four-wheeling through the pipeline construction site on his land.
Mike Sibson is a bigger aficionado of heavy equipment and good engineering than I am, but understandably, he has trouble looking on the project with much enthusiasm. As interesting as the big machines and the construction process might be, they're still doing something to his land that he didn't ask for. That gash in the earth and those big green pipes are a visual reminder, a more vivid proof than any abstract philosophy or legal document, that his land really isn't his. At any moment, the pipeline says, folks bigger and stronger and richer can have their way with the land you've worked for.

Mike says he made it onto a list, circulated by TransCanada to its contractors, warning them that he is a "hateful landowner." If there is such a list, and if that designation has any truth, Mike's interaction with the workers doesn't show it. He says gotten along reasonably well with the pipeline construction workers, about as civilly as any of us might with a few hundred uninvited guests making permanent changes to our property. He understands that the men (I didn't see any lady hardhats roving the construction site, but then I only toured a mile or so of the route) from Michels Pipeline Construction and other contractors aren't responsible for the invasion of his land. These men have come from all over the country to work hard and earn a living, just as Mike and Sue do on their land.

Are you fellas sure this pipe isn't supposed to go through Minnesota? Mike Sibson (right) listens as a manager from Michels Pipeline Construction of Brownsville, Wisconsin, explains that the welded pipeline will block a cattle crossing for a couple days.
But the pipeline builders also need reminders to do things right. Their trucks used to race along the gravel road right by the house. Sue went out with a video camera one day to record the fast passages. A truck roared forward from its stop at the intersection. The driver saw Sue, saw the camera, and geared down fast. Handmade signs reminding drivers to "Reduce Speed" appeared shortly afterward.

The Sibsons noticed that when the workers first started coming through their land, trash was left here and there on the work site. The Sibsons complained, and workers started picking up after themselves a little better.

Mike also hears from fellow farmers and landowners to the north that when pipeline work started up in Marshall County, the workers prepping the pipeline sections for welding would leave the metal filings on the ground. Landowners complained, and now the contractors are careful to clean up those metal filings.

The Sibsons had to do some persuading to get the contractors to put up fences along the route. The pipeline runs roughly down the center of the Sibsons' main square mile, cleaving in half crops and land where they run cattle. The contractors thought the big dirt berms would keep the cattle from crossing the work site and getting into other fields. Mike said no, cows would tromple down those dirt piles like kids on the playground. The company then offered to compensate the Sibsons for any cattle that got hurt or killed stumbling into the pipeline trench. Mike said no, a good farmer doesn't let his herd suffer for no reason, especially not when that suffering can be avoided. Farming isn't just about money; it's also about stewardship. TransCanada o.k.'ed good fence along the pastures.

Worker grinds pipeline section ends for welding
The men building TransCanada's Keystone pipeline have accommodated many of the Sibsons' concerns. But they had to be asked. If the Sibsons and other landowners hadn't complained, TransCanada's contractors would have kept on doing what they were doing, however they saw fit. And now landowners along the Keystone pipeline route will have to maintain similar vigilance... well, forever. If TransCanada had negotiated an annual leasing system, then simple market forces could have held the company responsible: if their surveyors or repair crews would fail to respect the land or landowners, the landowners could decline to renew their leases the following year, or at least could demand more money in compensation for their undeserved trouble. But TransCanada would have none of that: a one-time payment, plus a little extra for lost crop production over the next couple years, and TransCanada can do as it pleases on that strip of land for the rest of the century.

The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission did offer some relief for landowners in the 57 conditions it imposed on TransCanada in exchange for the go-ahead to dig. There is, however, some question whether, if nuts came to bolts, the PUC has the legal authority to enforce those conditions.

Pump Station 22, Miner County, SD. PS-22 was originally sited for the Sibsons' land; luckily for the Sibsons, TransCanada moved the site to two miles north of their house.
Even if Pierre has any authority to hold TransCanada accountable, would Pierre use it? The Sibsons don't think so, not for the sake of common citizens. They felt the state blew them and other landowners off during the pipeline approval hearings. They see the Legislature refusing to put even a meager tax on the pipeline to provide for environmental clean-up. They note the slight jog east the pipeline takes just up the road near Twin Lakes, to avoid, says Mike, the state game land there, and see the state exerting its will to keep the pipeline off state land but not lifting a finger to minimize the intrusion on private land. They hear rumors of other state favors for TransCanada. They see the state's media avoiding any hint of negative coverage of the pipeline project (did you hear about the accident near Carthage between a fast pipeline truck and a young driver who ended up in the hospital? Neither did I). The Sibsons put all that together, and they see themselves stuck for a lifetime with a new corporate neighbor whom they'll have to watch like a hawk... since no one else will.

In the four-wheeler, Mike and I had talked about how when a bad deal is a done deal, you can laugh about it, or you can cry about it. We managed to laugh a few times during our trip out through the pasture and up and down the line. Back in the farm yard, Sue Sibson started to say something, then checked herself. I wanted to encourage her, maybe say playfully, "Come on, say it. What do you have to lose?"

But at that moment, all Sue was concerned about losing was her composure. She bit back her emotions, and we finished our conversation with smiles and handshakes.

Sue finished her thought in an e-mail later that day: "We had to stand up for the land and ourselves. Even though we have a crude oil pipeline now, we still had to stand up."

Had to stand up. For Sue and Mike Sibson, the obligation to stand up for the rights of landowners and citizens is obvious. Just as disheartening as the failure of the Sibsons' stand is the failure of our elected officials to stand with them.


  1. Cory,

    What a fine piece of journaling of what the Sibson family has experienced as well as the detailing of the pipe installation. During the legislative session, I wondered why a majority of legislators were so meek and timid about asking for a minor tax to set aside for a modest spill damage fund that protects not only the landowners involved, but the acquifers we ALL need to sustain life for two-legged and four-legged beings in our state. They don't seem to have trouble seeking taxes on a lot of other things from South Dakotans.

    TransCanada has very, very deep pockets and it was asking very little to set aside a fund to protect our drinking water from damage that would last several decades and much longer. A rupture on a pipeline pushing oil at very high pressure would create quite a disaster ... the least cost of which would be sending in repair crews to dig up the line, splice new sections, test it again and haul out truckloads of contaminated soil to be sent to EPA-approved storage dumps. Can you imagine crews trying to dig through frozen ground in February to do such a repair project?

    Ten or 20 years from now, if such a rupture occurred, they'll wonder why the people elected to watch out for the safety of our state ignored a very modest protection.

  2. Very good job Cory!
    Are Mike and Sue related to Steve?

  3. We are North Dakota farmers who have had the same experience as the Sibsons. The pipeline is literally in the backyard of our 5 year old "dream home" on our farm - our land - that we also thought we owned.
    We too stood up and fought as hard as we could and eventually reached a confidential settlement with Keystone. We feel that we were abandoned by our state and local governments in favor of tax revenue from the pipeline.
    I couldn't help feeling as I read your article that by changing the state and names this could have been written about my family.
    Tammy Mathews

  4. Kelly Fuller9/04/2009 6:43 PM

    What the Sibsons have experienced will be repeated in West River if TransCanada is granted permission to build the Keystone XL pipeline. It's in proceedings at the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission right now.

  5. The truth is, and has always been since nationhood, that the land is owned by the soveriegn. Land title is merely title rights of first conditional use. The sovereign can take land - supposedly for public use - until the recent right wing US Supreme Court, by 5-4 approved taking for private use under a flimsy rationale to increase public tax revenue.

    Rick is right - it is deplorable that the legislature & governor failed to do more to protect our resources, water, farms & rural communities.

    We need to ENFORCE infrastructure cooridors - FORCE the pencil-neck engineers and accountants to run project down current right of way easements - there are more than enough already without subdividing more land, wetlands, farms, and communities.

    John Kelley

  6. Cory: Thanks for posting this and for actually taking the time to do your own investigative work.

    I don't know which laws govern this sort of thing, which means that I have some homework to do. But my gut says that homesteaders ought to truly own their land and it also says that foreign companies shouldn't be able to seize American land.

    So, for once, count me on your side and on the side of the Sibsons.

  7. Thanks, all! Matt, yes, Mike S. is Steve S.'s brother. South Dakota's two degrees of separation strike again.

    Kelley, I hope our West River neighbors can get more pull in Pierre. I guess they now have the additional disadvantage of fighting the precedent forged by the current pipeline.

    Miranda: check out statute on "common carrier," maybe that will help. I'm not surprised we're on the same side on this one: I am much more surprised that fewer people in Pierre would take this side... the side of their own constituents and taxpayers.

  8. Steve Sibson9/05/2009 10:09 AM


    This post is probably the best blogumentary (SIC?) that I remember viewing. You truly did a fantastic job with the photos and more importantly...the content. Thanks a bunch.

    Let me add an ideological thought to what this issue is about. What we see here is an erosion of individual rights (in this case property rights), and a move toward central control by the government, in partnership with big business (not pure socialism, but perhaps fascism). This would be just as wrong if the land was taken so that a private company could install a wind farm.

    Now that thought leaves a very difficult question that I have been wrestling with through out this issue. Certainly we need energy, and we also need to understand that these projects are needed to make that happen. Constitutionally, I believe the government has to give fair value for property it believes is needed for the public good. What I found disturbing was the process in which this was done regarding this pipeline. Excuse the pun, but I learned what the term...getting railoaded...means. In this case, we could say...pipelined. The government and the big corporations had massive legal resources, and the landowners had very little. There was no negotiation up front. It was...take the offer because you have to. The government is behind TransCanada. I won't get into anymore details on that.

    In regard to the creation of a fund to take care of future problems; the legal eagles of TransCanada argued that a tax would violate some sort of commerce right. I believe the "trans" made this a federal issue, and the state had little in rights. I think my ideological analysis (individual freedoms versus state-control) also applies with this state's rights versus federal control struggle.

    I will conclude my pointing out that those on the Progressive left may oppose this from an environmental view, but you have to take responsibility for advancing your overall ideological agenda of more state-control. The rejection of Natural Law, that protects the individual, to an positivist legal philosophy is leading us to a totalitarian state, if we don't have one already.

    I think I have articulated the ideological difference I have with Cory and his fellow Progressives. Despite that difference, I found myself arguing on the same side with the environmental extremists and the Democrats. What needs to be understood is that free-market capitalism was not the ideology the South Dakota Republicans used to let TransCanada have its way with South Dakota landowners. The landowners had little ability in negotiating the "fair" price for the rights given. It was the responsibility of the governemnt to make sure that happened, to protect the free-market. Instead it went through the motions pretending they were. This experience was a major reason why I came to the conclusion that there is one thing both political parties believe in, and that is more governemnt the better.

    When can we stop the fraternity fight, and have a fight on behalf of indivdual Natural Rights versus the special interest forces that use government to further their agenda?

  9. Cory,

    Nice work, however when the U.S. Congress agreed to terms with the World Trade Organization, they agreed to place the U.S. Constitution secondary to the W.T.O. and their rules. The same applies to NAFTA.

    In order to promote worldwide economic development, you have to agree to fast track all development or be left with no development. I prefer the U.S. Constitution and our rights as a soveriegn Nation. But our leaders in congress would rather America be the dumping ground for the worlds products.

  10. The article on the Sibson family and TransCanada is spot on.

    My wife and I are among a group of property owners in Bedford County, Pennsylvania (about 2 hours from Washington), who have had the dual experience of receiving royalties from gas wells then having our property rights seized for a 12 billion cubic feet underground natural gas storage field in the depleted gas wells.

    This became a transformative two-year eminent domain fight with Houston-based Spectra Energy, backed by the power of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- which gave Spectra Energy the power of eminent domain.

    Out of that fight, came a website with landowners' video and periodic blogs.

    But you are absolutely right about eternal vigilence. On a recent quiet Sunday afternoon, a gas leak caused the company's nearly 5,000 horsepower compressor on top of the underground gas storage field to go into automatic shutdown causing a release of gas and a shower of oily contaminant over neighboring properties.

    It took Spectra Energy 3 days to officially notify residents and ask them not to eat their vegetables until the contaminant could be tested. It took the company 5 days to submit written notification of the incident to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

    DEP says it is now investigating whether Spectra Energy met the timely reporting requirement.

    I posted a blog on the incident after communicating with residents, officials of the company and the DEP. Here is the link: http://www.spectraenergywatch.com/blog/?p=372

    Excellent organizations fighting eminent domain, like the Institute for Justice/Castle Coalition, do not deal with the "taking" power of government where public utilities and energy companies are concerned (because of the "public good" argument). We are trying to fill the gap.

    Property owners can check out our website with landowner video and blog posts here:

    Stick together.



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