By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

It’s often assumed that Texans, like the majority of their lawmakers, favor oil drilling and the expansion of the oil industry.

And it’s often true. But a small, scrappy group of protesters that has risen up against the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas and Oklahoma shows that sometimes stereotypes are just that.

Tar Sands Blockade protesters make their statement in Cushing, the "Pipeline Crossroads ofthe World". (Photo: Tar Sands Blockade).

Their protests began last week, with small groups brandishing protest signs at work sites, where pipeline operator TransCanada has begun laying the Southern portion of the 1,700 mile transcontinental pipeline from Alberta to the Houston area.

Their actions have so far been quite small, like Greenpeace events without the cool costumes and aerial aspects. But as word of their activities spreads, they hope to raise awareness about the dangers of tar sands-produced oil (called bitumen), attract more people willing to “put their bodies” in the way and frustrate TransCanada’s efforts to transport this oil from Alberta to refineries and shipping points in Texas.

The concerns of these Dixie-based protestors, organized as the Tar Sands Blockade, parallel those of people in Nebraska, who managed to win a moratorium on the pipeline in their region last fall.

They are worried that the Keystone pipeline could ruin water supplies if it leaks (in Nebraska the original route ran over areas where the Ogallala Aquifer is near the surface; in Texas, the aquifer at risk is the Cerrizo-Wilcox ) or contaminate private farm and ranch lands. A big concern for many also includes the fact that the pipeline contributes to climate change by facilitating tar sands extraction.

But while the Nebraskans lobbied their legislature and governor and ultimately won the notice of President Obama, whose administration ordered additional environmental review of the pipeline through Nebraska, the Texas and Oklahoma protesters, virtually ignored by their elected representatives, are forced to taking a more rogue approach.

Tar Sands Blockade protesters began with a Day of Action Aug. 16. (Photo: Tar Sands Blockade)

Blockade members began training at a camp this summer that attracted about 70 men and women of all ages, says Tar Sands Blockade spokesman Ron Seifert.

Their plan, to slow pipeline progress, attracted people who normally don’t mingle at political events. Ardent environmentalists offended by the heavy carbon footprint of tar sands oil mining, locked elbows with Republican-voting land rights advocates, Seifert said.

These unusual bedfellows came together, he said, because both groups felt bullied by TransCanada and abandoned by government officials who’ve paved the way for the company.

Conservationists of many stripes

“We get caught up in the polarization at the national level, and we think people can’t agree, and that’s simply not the case,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who disagree about a lot of things, but they agree about this.”

Specifically, the protesters agree that TransCanada  has been granted an exceptionally wide berth to install its pipeline,  and although there were opportunities for the public to register its opinion, many felt that their grievances were not really heard, Seifert said.

Under Texas law, TransCanada was given the ability to condemn and claim land from owners who did not sign voluntary agreements, because the company had been granted “common carrier” status.

Utilities and pipeline companies get common carrier privileges — to claim eminent domain over private property — because they are carrying oil, gas and minerals to the public.

Blockade members see TransCanada, a foreign company plowing through U.S. turf to get to global markets, as having a different role than most “carriers” because the company won’t necessarily be servicing Texans, Seifert said.

TransCanada received common carrier status in 2008 by declaring itself to be a common carrier before the  Railroad Commission of Texas, which grants the status. The commission, however, has little oversight or regulatory authority, according to its own explanation of the common carrier procedures.

So TransCanada was free to began  bargaining for, and condemning, the Texas land it needed for the Keystone XL.

“They (TransCanada) never had to prove anything,” Seifert says.

For its part, TransCanada has said it is sensitive to landowner issues. On the company website, TransCanada promises to treat all landowners “honestly, fairly and with mutual respect.” It further reports that it has given landowners “fair and equitable compensation” for land easements and promises to restore disturbed land and act with environment responsibility as it has during 60 years of building pipelines.

Many landowners may feel they have gotten a good deal from TransCanada, which paid them for easements as it pieced together the route from Cushing, Okla., to the Houston area, though the details of these private transactions are not typically made public.

Julia Trigg Crawford (rear, middle) family on their ranch. (Photo: Stand with Julia.)

But about 100 held out, not wanting to sacrifice any land to the pipeline. The holdouts ultimately watched their land taken without their permission, and one woman in that group, Julia Trigg Crawford, escalated the fight by going to court.

A trial on Crawford’s challenge to TransCanada’s common carrier status is set for Sept. 4, in Paris, Texas. Supporters of Ms. Crawford’s have set up a defense fund website, so followers can get updates.

Other Texas landowners along the route sought to protest the condemnations, short of getting a court injunction, but failed to find anyone from among their local and state officials who would carry their complaints forward, Seifert said.

“There’s no one out there who was willing to receive these legitimate grievances,” he said.

Unsatisfied, they now support the blockade.

Tar Sands Blockade quoted some of them in a recent news release:

“It is truly an abomination that a country I fought in a foreign war for would let a Canadian corporation come in, bully us around, and take land that is a sanctuary to my family, not to mention possibly annihilate us by contaminating our water supply when this pipe leaks,” said Gabriel Cordova, a veteran and self-described conservative.

“We ought to be protecting both our natural resources and our constitutional rights, not Canadian corporations.”

The goal of protecting both private land, and the natural resources that lay beneath it, unites the blockade protesters, who come from Houston, Dallas, East Texas and Oklahoma communities, says Seifert, who is not a Texan, but came from Montana to become a full-time organizer for the blockade.

Tar sands problems loom large

Seifert signed up after realizing the magnitude of tar sands extraction and witnessing the “ungodly” large equipment being trucked through Montana to the tar sands fields in Canada.

With the earth halfway to the 2 degrees Celsius of warming scientists say is the maximum to avert calamity, humans cannot afford to add anything more to our “carbon budget,” he says.  “If industry wants to extract every last drop of it (the tar sands), it would almost certainly exceed our limits of carbon emissions, and at that point we will have lost the future.”

His words echo those of  noted climate expert Dr. James E. Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Space Center, who says full tar sands extraction would exact an intolerably high toll on the planet, far worse than has been seen with conventional oil drilling.

Whether the tar sands’ carbon pollution is double that of regular oil drilling, as some scientists say, is a matter of debate. But the method of oil extraction, which involves strip mining for tar sands deposits, has claimed vast forests and wilderness, releasing naturally stored carbon, and contaminated acres of fresh water, which is used to pull oil from the tar sands deposits. The oil recovered is a thick substance called bitumen. Bitumen is mixed with chemicals to help it flow better, created a solution called dilbit (diluted bitumen), which is heated and pumped down pipelines to distant refineries. The tar sands oil, in other words, is hot and toxic.

Protest, Texas-style. (Photo: Tar Sands Blockade.)

Activists worry that the damage from the Canadian tar sands will spread to the U.S. in the form of leaks, like the one that already occurred in the Kalamazoo River from an Enbridge pipeline carrying tar sands. Clean up has been difficult because the heavy bitumen doesn’t float like lighter crude, so it cannot be skimmed off the water’s surface.

Seifert acknowledges that the blockade group’s actions  may seem minor against the power of the oil industry, a David-and-Goliath fight.

With the TransCanada predicting it will have an alternate route through Nebraska and win federal approval by 2013 for the leg from the Canadian border through Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska, and the Southern portion already fully approved, it might seem like a fight with little chance of success.

But that’s no reason to stop trying to move away from “the oil paradigm,” Seifert says, insisting that the protests “might just take off like a fever”.

“The campaign goal is to delay this as long as possible,” he said.

“We believe every delay is an opportunity to shine a light on this abusive and unconscionable project, which in turn will create the necessary pressure to stop Keystone XL once and for all.”


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