Spaces in Between

The Spaces in Between: Following the Route of Keystone XL

As proposed, the Keystone XL Pipeline would run from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska. Because the pipeline is a buried, hidden thing, I thought I should see what goes on aboveground—how the land where the oil comes from is treated. In May 2017 I started my trip north of the Hardisty refinery in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the center of the tar sands mining industry, and spent six weeks exploring two provinces and three states, driving several thousand miles to see the landscape the 1,100-mile pipeline would go through.

Canada’s boreal forest became a stable landscape about 7,000 years ago, and in Alberta it once covered the northern half of the province. Wildlife that is rare or endangered other places, including millions of woodland caribou, still thrives there, as do species that have lost much of their original range in North America—grizzly bears, wolverines, lynxes, and wolves. Fire, disease, and insects are an integral part of how the forest was shaped, so the trees are mixed in age and usually less than 100 years old.

Surface mining of tar sands completely removes the complex ecosystem of the forest, diverts rivers and streams, and drains or excavates wetlands. Hydraulic shovels and mammoth trucks remove the tar sands—2 metric tons of sand are removed to produce one barrel of oil—from deep open pits. One effect of this land clearing is the displacement of birds and wildlife. Black bears are shot when they wander into oil sands workers’ camps to scavenge, and the Canadian government has proposed shooting and poisoning wolves as a remedy for the woodland caribou’s loss of habitat.

The Union of Concerned Scientists considers tar sands one of the dirtiest sources of oil in the world because of the energy needed for the extraction and refining processes. Yet the industry continues to expand, producing more fossil fuels, contributing to higher carbon dioxide emission, and removing more forest, which has been “burning at a rate unprecedented in the last 10,000 years.”

Removing bitumen (tar) from sand leaves a toxic sludge that is stored in tailing lakes. Currently the lakes hold more than 200 billion gallons of toxic waste, and an estimated 3 million gallons leak into the environment every day. (Image 1 & 2, below)

Alberta’s tar sands are along a major flyway for birds migrating to the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Waterfowl and shorebirds depend on freshwater ponds for nesting, foraging, and roosting, and as resting places during migration. While natural water bodies in Alberta are still frozen in the spring, the warm-water tailing ponds are both attractive and dangerous to waterfowl. The birds can become oiled with waste bitumen and be unable to fly; their feathers may lose their insulating properties, which can result in death from hypothermia.

Shorebirds are also at risk because they may see the thick, oily shorelines of tailing ponds as mudflats. It is estimated that several hundred birds are oiled in a typical year, and the problem will increase because oil sands development is predicted to double in less than a decade. Some oil companies have placed on-demand cannon systems on tailing ponds to deter the birds—a sort of shock-and-awe experience.

Fort McMurray’s population boomed with the development of oil sands starting in the 1960s. On May 1, 2016, a fire began southwest of Fort McMurray and burned out of control until July 5. The fire reached Fort McMurray on May 3. Large parts of the town were evacuated, and entire neighborhoods were destroyed. A wildfire researcher called that fire “consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change.”


I was in Fort McMurray one year after the fire. The Beacon Hill neighborhood had lost more than four hundred homes, and rebuilding activity was intense. The neighborhood looked new again, but the forest that edges the neighborhood along the Hangingstone River stands charred. (Image 3, above)

When I mapped out my trip, the list of named large rivers—Red Deer, Saskatchewan, Cheyenne, Yellowstone, Missouri, Niobrara, and North Platte—was impressive. What I was not prepared for was the multitude of small rivers and tributaries this pipeline would need to cross. In the United States that number is well over 1,000, including intermittent, perennial, and ephemeral streams; small tributary creeks; and major rivers. In addition, there are correspondingly large and small rivers in Alberta and Saskatchewan and abundant sloughs that wildlife, ranchers, and groundwater replenishment rely on. So my trip from Hardisty (Image 4, above) to Steele City involved looking at water along the way, staying within range—and always downstream—of the proposed pipeline.

On the Missouri River in Montana, the pipeline would pass between the Fort Peck Dam spillway and the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, just downstream of the 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds the 250,000-acre Fort Peck Lake. The Downstream Campground is just below the dam along the Missouri. I usually prefer a more remote, backcountry camp, but I set up my tent there for three nights with about 300 other campers. We were all drawn there by the water—little boys with fishing poles, bird-watchers, and families setting out for the day in boats.

In northern Holt County, Nebraska, the pipeline would cross the Niobrara River just downstream of a 76-mile corridor designated as a national scenic river. That corridor is a meeting place of six different ecosystems. As a result, it supports a unique mix of birds, plants and other wildlife, with some hybrids found only there. Standing on the bank of the river at the eastern boundary of the scenic corridor, I was just upstream from where the pipeline would cross.

In Nebraska and a portion of South Dakota, it would be built over, and in some places in, the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Keystone XL would in most places require a 110-foot-wide corridor (Image 5, above) to bury the 36-inch-diameter pipe. The Keystone I Pipeline, completed in 2010, with a 30-inch-diameter pipe, leaked more than a dozen times in its first year of operation. As a result of two of those leaks, the U.S. Department of Transportation had the pipeline shut down for repairs. The leaks on that pipeline have not stopped. The most recent leak, in November 2017, released more than 200,000 gallons of oil. Later that month, the Nebraska Public Service Commission denied TransCanada the route it had requested for the XL but allowed that it could build the pipeline along the route of Keystone I. TransCanada immediately appealed, requesting that the commission reconsider its rejection of the company’s “preferred” XL route. That request was denied on December 19, and TransCanada, tribes, landowners, and others may now appeal the Nebraska Public Service Commission’s approved alternative route.

Documents filed with the Public Utilities Commission in South Dakota confirm that it is not possible to eliminate the risk of a Keystone XL leak. The documents (See p. 12 #43) include estimates of the chances of a leak made by the Keystone company’s environmental consulting firm and a description of the consequences of a leak.

Dr. John Stansbury, in his independent assessment of Keystone XL spill risks, estimates that there would be 91 major spills in the 50-year design life of the pipeline. It is a read-it-and-weep report as he outlines the impacts of a leak or spill on the Platte, Missouri, and Yellowstone Rivers; the Nebraska Sandhills; the Ogallala Aquifer; and air, terrestrial life, and surface water.

A long legacy of sex trafficking and rape in the mining industry continues in the oil field man-camps and plagued some communities where Keystone I workers bunked. Sexual violence looms as one more significant threat of the Keystone XL.

Leaving the tar sands country and going south from Hardisty, I wandered the least traveled roads I could find to Steele City. It was a quiet and spacious trip through the spaces in between the Alberta refinery and the Steele City pumping station. These are some of the waters the pipeline would cross.

On a barely two-lane dirt road in Holt County, Nebraska, I stopped along the Niobrara River. It is a very isolated stretch of road, and I didn’t see any people or cars, but as I walked I could hear children laughing. I finally found them in the river—a dozen girls in the right place on a very hot day. Over and over they caught the current, yelled at each other to get out of the current, and swam back upstream to start again. Soon after, on the last day of my trip, I walked for hours along the Platte River at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary. In spring, up to 500,000 sandhill cranes, a much smaller number of endangered whooping cranes, and a multitude of other migratory birds congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the river, some on their way to nesting grounds along the migratory route to Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta. On a weekday in June, I was the only one there, and there were very few birds of any kind.

To see those girls in the Niobrara oblivious to any threat but the current and to be along the Platte midday without the cacophony of bird life seemed to underline what this pipeline puts at risk. The pipeline fills no need but instead brings the threat of abuse to the communities and land it passes through. It threatens all the delicate, the hard-used, and the filled-with-life spaces in between.