Early last year, TransCanada started up a pipeline called Keystone with little fuss or fanfare. It runs from Canada to Steele City, Neb., then east to Wood River and Patoka, Ill. And it got all the required permits from the State Department and other agencies.

The company’s next pipeline, the Keystone XL, followed a different route on the ground — and in the political arena, kicking up controversy.

Why didn’t TransCanada use the same route as it did for the Keystone line?

The first pipeline entered the United States farther to the east and ran down the eastern edge of Nebraska, farther away from the state’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer.

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard explains the first Keystone line used its own “underutilized natural gas line that was converted to oil service [and] recertified for such use.” Converting an existing pipeline “meant that we were able to disturb less land and reduce the pipeline’s environmental footprint,” he said.

Map: Keystone XL pipeline

Explore the controversies surrounding the pipeline. View the full graphic

For Keystone XL, he said, TransCanada looked for a more direct path.

Howard said that “many of the activists who oppose Keystone XL throw [out] the idea of moving it ‘over there,’ knowing full well it starts the review process from scratch. Fourteen different route alternatives were examined as part of the original Keystone XL application. The route we applied for disturbed the least amount of land while minimizing water crossings and other sensitive areas that we could disturb as part of construction. Generally the biggest environmental impact a pipeline has is during construction.”

Recently the company moved, for a second time, its proposed route through Nebraska to avoid more ecologically sensitive Sandhills and to move down gradient — the geological equivalent of downhill — from the drinking water supplies of three Nebraska towns.

While TransCanada awaits permits for the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, construction on the southern leg already has begun.

Texas farm manager Julia Trigg Crawford, a high-profile foe the Keystone XL who lost an eminent domain case against TransCanada, says that about two weeks ago she “found TransCanada surveyors on my place.”

“They have also been all over the county starting work on other tracts, many adjacent to mine,” Crawford wrote. “Lots of heavy equipment, and truckloads of trees being hauled out daily. . . . It is a madhouse out here.” She called it “a sad day indeed at Red’Arc Farm.”