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National Fuel's $177 million bet 77-mile pipeline link is key to getting gas from Canada to New York City

The line of green pipes stretches like a long snake for a half mile along the narrow brown dirt path carved out of the lush green field of a Yates County farm.

At the end of the path, Joe Gezik points to a small stake pounded into the muddy ground bordering a stretch of untouched farm field leading to a sheer 200-foot valley for the Seneca-Keuka outlet that runs between Seneca and Keuka lakes.

On the other side of the valley, obscured by a line of trees on both sides, is another field. It is there, Gezik says, that a robotic drill has started churning through the rock, behind the walls of the valley, then 38 feet beneath the river bed and eventually up the other side of the valley on a gentle, sloping path that the Empire State Pipeline's 77-mile extension will follow.

In a few days, Gezik said, the robotic drill, guided by operators on the other side of the valley using satellite-guided global positioning systems, will emerge from the muddy ground, leaving a 30-inch tunnel, just wide enough for the 24-inch pipes that stretch into the distance, just beyond Gezik's shoulder.

If everything goes right, the hole will hit the stake at Gezik's feet.

"They'll hit it, I guarantee you," said Gezik, the National Fuel petroleum engineer who serves as the project ombudsman for the pipeline extension. "I've seen it before."

Once the drill emerges, it will head back through the tunnel. This time, it will pull the half-mile stretch of pipe down into the tunnel with it, snaking it back underneath the outlet and back up the other side of the valley. And even though each 80-foot section of pipe seems entirely rigid, Gezik says the length of connected pipe can flex just enough to fit through the gently sloping tunnel.

And so it goes with the construction of the 77-mile extension of the Empire State Pipeline, which began in earnest last month and is expected to continue through mid-December, before shutting down for the winter.

Crews are slated to build the first 20 to 25 miles of the pipeline this year -- a stretch that parallels Keuka and Seneca lakes from Penn Yan to just east of Watkins Glen. Next year, construction will shift to the northern section beginning in the Rochester suburb of Victor, where the extension will tie into the 157-mile Empire State Pipeline that National Fuel owns between Buffalo and Syracuse.

The southern section of the extension will connect in Corning with the Millennium Pipeline, another pipeline running along the Southern Tier that now is under construction. The southern section of the Empire State extension also will be built next year, with the entire connector scheduled to be completed by November 2008.

The idea behind the pipeline extension, first proposed in February 2004, is to open up a new route to bring natural gas from western Canada to gas hungry markets in the New York City area and along the East Coast.

"We see this as an important investment for the growth of the company," said Julie Coppola Cox, a spokeswoman for National Fuel, which is spending $177 million to build the extension.

"We know that the demand has grown," she said. "We'll be able to reach the markets on the East Coast."

Getting the gas there is no easy task. The company started surveying the extension's proposed route more than three years ago, mapping out, and then tweaking a route that initially covered 83 miles and now is six miles shorter.

It was a process that required National Fuel to obtain environmental permits, negotiate with thousands of landowners whose property the pipeline would cross and gain approval from federal energy regulators. And National Fuel had to find a customer for the gas it planned to pump through the pipeline, which it did in KeySpan Energy, a major New York City utility that has agreed to take more than 60 percent of the extension's capacity.

But that process also took longer than initially expected, pushing the timetable for the extension's completion back by a year and driving up its cost by $37 million over initial estimates -- a gap that the company partially bridged by gaining tax breaks from industrial development agencies in the six counties that the pipeline crosses.

One unintentional benefit of the one-year delay, however, was to push the first phase of construction into this year's warm and dry fall.

"The weather has been very cooperative," said Gezik, who has worked for National Fuel for almost 40 years. "Cold is no problem. But rain? I don't like to see rain."

To build the pipeline, National Fuel's contractor, Otis Eastern Service of Wellsville, is splitting its 150-person work force into a series of crews, each one working ahead of the one behind it. The lead crews clear and grade the land, cutting a 50-foot-wide swath along the route staked out for the pipeline, and scraping the topsoil off to one side so it can be put back into place later.

Trenching crews follow next, digging a trench that averages about 4-feet deep. Other crews follow to use hydraulic machines to bend certain sections of the pipe slightly so it can follow a winding route. Each segment of pipe is typically 40-feet to 80-feet long and is of varying thickness, depending on soil conditions and location.

Welders then join each section, which are then X-rayed to ensure that there aren't any defects in the welds and then sealed with a special coating.

Once all that is done, the pipe is ready to be buried. Crews will lift sections of the now-connected pipeline and set it on sandbags placed every 15 to 20 feet along the bottom of the trench, which is then filled, first with the subsoil piled on one side of the trench and then the topsoil that was scraped to the other side.

The key, Gezik says, is to make sure that each crew stays ahead of the one behind it, so none are waiting around for something to do. That only creates costly bottlenecks.

Gezik, who lives in Kane, Pa., and makes the three-hour commute each week to the rented Finger Lakes region house he shares with three other National Fuel workers, calls the pipeline project is the last big hurrah of his career.

He's planning to retire next year.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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