View from the windshield. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The road portion of this road trip actually started Friday, when we took a rented car (a Ford Flex more suited to taking high school kids to their prom) and set off for Hardisty, the small town (population 639) in Alberta where the Keystone XL pipeline would actually start.

We drove past seemingly endless prairie and after a couple of hours we came around a bend and saw a field of large oil tanks perched on a small hill.

Though the U.S. permits applications are still pending at the State Department, TransCanada already has its permits in Canada and there is a lot of activity at the site. Cranes were lifting segments of new pipeline and workmen were putting down foundations for pipelines, buildings and pumping stations. It’s the same site where TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline begins. (Yes, the existing Keystone and the bigger proposed Keystone XL are different pipelines. It’s a little confusing.  Before the first Keystone opened, TransCanada was mainly in the gas pipeline business, not oil.)

Bryan Templeton, the facilities manager and an electrician by training, gave us a tour (even though when we arrived he was listening to the radio for word on who his much-loved Edmonton Oilers were going to pick in the hockey draft). Raised nearby in Wainwright, Templeton has a low-key style and a deliberate manner. He showed us everything down to the small metal jugs used to collect oil for testing. “Hardisty is a hub for oil that comes from the oil sands from Fort McMurray,” he said. Oil from other parts of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan end up here, too.

TransCanada isn’t the only pipeline company in Hardisty; there are half a dozen others with facilities. But TransCanada has three big gleaming white tanks for the Keystone line and three more tanks (still dark, reddish brown unfinished and unpainted) are being installed for Keystone XL.

Where the new tanks are situated, TransCanada has constructed a large retaining wall of stones and is laying segments of the 36-inch pipe that will link the tanks and the future main line. Bright orange casing is also going in for fiber-optic cables that will carry information alongside the pipe. Each tank here can hold 350,000 barrels of oil, or more than a million barrels storage capacity for each line. The company has other smaller buildings for testing the viscosity and other qualities of each “batch” of oil (measuring 14,000 cubic meters or about 140,000 cubic feet) before it is sent down the existing Keystone line. New labs are being put together this summer to serve the Keystone XL line.

“As Fort McMurray continues to grow, there will be more pipelines built here or in Edmonton,” Templeton said.

Pressing ahead with preparations before all the permits are in order may seem optimistic. But TransCanada chief executive Russ Girling, in an interview in his Calgary office on Thursday, said “We’re into this thing $2.5 billion” – what  TransCanada has already spent on engineering, siting, land leases, and equipment such as pipes and valves. “I’m spending money on basis that logic will prevail.”