He never wanted a pipeline pulsing beneath his fields and farmyard southwest of Seward.
But Mike Briggs didn’t have a choice in 2009, when TransCanada was building its original Keystone pipeline through Nebraska.
“I’m not happy I got my property taken away,” he said earlier this month. “I will never understand why we give a foreign oil company, or any for-profit company, the ability to take and condemn American land. That’s not right.”
And he was as equally unhappy during construction, when the company trenched up his manicured yard to run the pipeline 60 feet from the front door of his family’s 5-year-old brick home.
“This is a piece of my universe,” he said then. “And they’re tearing the crap out of it.”
But in the eight years since? Not a single complaint.
The company filled holes, replaced fence, responded to problems quickly and, most importantly, left little trace of what lies beneath.
“My experience has been nothing but positive,” Briggs said. “We really don’t even know the dumb thing is there.”
Now, though, the pipeline’s presence in Seward County is becoming harder to forget: TransCanada is deciding whether to plant its controversial, 36-inch Keystone XL alongside its smaller pipeline already running beneath Colfax, Butler, Seward, Saline and Jefferson counties.
It wasn't the company’s first choice to deliver Canadian crude to the Gulf of Mexico. For years, TransCanada prepared for a shorter and more direct path through Nebraska, but the state Public Service Commission last month instead approved the company’s so-called mainline alternative.
The ruling left little clear. TransCanada still hasn't decided whether it will even proceed with the $8 billion project, said spokeswoman Robynn Tysver. Her company's board of directors will make that call.
“And when that will come, I don't know,” she said. “Late this year or next year.”
But that hasn't stopped the company from identifying and contacting landowners along the state-approved route, and it staged a series of informal meetings this month in Columbus, Norfolk and Seward. The gatherings — closed to reporters — were intended to let property owners know whether, and where, the Keystone XL could cross their land, and to try to answer their questions, Tysver said.
The landowner engagement meetings should not serve as a signal to landowners the company is committed to completing the pipeline, she said.
“I wouldn't read too much into it. They can take away from it we're very serious about it, and we're continuing to move forward until the board makes a final decision.”
At the same time, pipeline opponents were holding their own informational meetings along the route. Bold Nebraska and the Domina Law Group planned to discuss landowner rights, easements and eminent domain in Seward, Norfolk and O'Neill.
“Only TransCanada currently knows the actual exact route — or exactly which landowners are now affected,” Bold Nebraska said in a press release.
But Tysver said the company is still identifying affected landowners, still determining how many new easements it would have to negotiate.
The Keystone XL would generally parallel the existing pipeline, ideally in its existing 50-foot-wide easement. But that could change, depending on the terrain and other barriers.
It could go out of the original easement, Tysver said. “And sometimes, it will cross over the existing line; sometimes, if a farmer has a concern with an irrigation pivot, we may adjust for that.”
Through most of Seward County, though, the approved route separates from the original pipeline path, making a 30-mile westward arc to avoid the city of Seward’s water supply.
That means many landowners are just now learning their property could be cut by the pipeline. The company’s meetings this month were intended to let them know what to expect, Tysver said.
First, the company pays property owners when it runs a pipeline through their land, but it adjusts for that, too.
“We negotiate with everyone,” she said. “Each piece of property, we negotiate separately with every landowner.”
It also pays for crop damage, and for loss of revenue if pipeline construction knocks the land out of production during the growing season.
“And we restore it to the way it was before,” she said. “When it's all said and done, out of sight, out of mind.”
Seward County landowners with the original Keystone cutting through their property said that's largely been true.
Elaine and Merlyn Nielsen haven't had any issues on their land, Elaine Nielsen said. TransCanada paid them well, and the crop hasn't suffered.
“Our renter has farmed right over it,” she said. “It doesn't seem to have disturbed things too badly.”
Carol Sell estimated she has nearly a mile of pipeline beneath her property. She hasn't had any problem with TransCanada since the Keystone was buried.
“I can't say there's any trouble,” she said. “They're on your property several times a year, and they're always good about telling you when they're going to be there.”
It wasn't as easy during the construction, or before.
“It isn't a fast process. They dug a big ditch. It takes a long time and they removed a lot of dirt,” she said. “I don't know for sure, but some farmers said the crops weren't as good.”
She had tried fighting it. She joined other landowners, hired a lawyer, attempted to keep the Keystone away from the land her family has owned for more than a century. She worried about leaks, like the pipeline's 210,000-gallon spill in South Dakota last month. She worried about the company's crews coming to her land whenever they wanted.
And she worried about permanence, Sell said. This pipe will remain beneath her land.
“It’s always, until the end of time, going to be under my ground. My children will inherit it someday.”
West of the Seward Airport, Mike Briggs wasn't surprised a second pipeline could cross his land. He’d watched the company plant the first one near the edge of the 50-foot-wide easement, leaving room for another trench.
“They knew they were coming back,” he said.
He was a vocal opponent during the initial construction, but he tempers his criticism now. The muddy mess in his yard disappeared years ago, and he wouldn't know a pipeline runs through it if he didn't know where to look.
When a large hole opened across the road, the company filled it in. When sinks appeared in his fields, it responded quickly. When it needed to take out a section of fence, it put it in a better replacement.
So TransCanada's day-to-day operations have given him nothing to fume about. “There was no arguing, no pushing, no shoving. They handled everything very professionally.”
But Briggs still doesn't want a pipeline — or two, if TransCanada crews return with their equipment.
“They did a nice job, and that's great. But there's still a pipeline here, and now there might be another one.”