Passions boil over during Texas pipeline protests

NACOGDOCHES COUNTY, Texas -- Fifty feet up, in the canopy of the famous Piney Woods of east Texas, three more activists took to the trees yesterday to protest the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Protesters participating in the "tree sit" hung banners from suspended platforms decrying the pipeline project and the company behind it, TransCanada Corp. It echoed a larger protest just north of here near the town of Winnsboro, only this time the tree sitters anchored their platforms to construction equipment.

Moving the equipment or cutting the lines would collapse the platforms, putting the protesters' lives at risk, said Cindy Spoon, an activist with the Tar Sands Blockade group.

"We told the police, 'We won't be the ones cutting the lines; you will,'" she said.

To the protesters here, the latest effort is meant to show they are willing to fight against the southern leg of Keystone XL to the bitter end. Spokeswoman Kim Huynh, a 25-year-old who had been working for Friends of the Earth before the protests began, said TransCanada can expect similar treatment as pipeline construction crosses into other mountain West and Midwestern states.

Huynh said she is certain this protest is part of a growing movement to bring the oil industry's role in climate change to center stage. Yesterday's tree sits and protests involving people chained to construction equipment capped off a weekend of anti-fossil fuel protests.

Keystone XL protesters marched outside of the White House on Sunday. A proposed oil sands project in Utah attracted protesters, and an anti-fossil fuel group picketed the St. Louis office of JPMorgan Chase, which has has been singled out for financing oil sands projects.


"We're seeing that these actions are part of a burgeoning movement of people all around the world that are really tired of greedy corporations treating our atmosphere and our essential resources like an open sewer into which they can pour their pollution, their carbon pollution," Huynh said. "People are rising up to defend their homes and say enough is enough."

For years, the industrial process of extracting oil sands (also referred to as tar sands) has been criticized for producing more heat-trapping carbon emissions than conventional drilling. But a study out of the Council on Foreign Relations a few years ago found that the oil sands emissions are negligible compared to major sources like coal-fired power plants.

In Texas, 'we know pipeline'

Still, anti-Keystone XL protesters say they are concerned about the heavier-grade, bitumen-derived crude that the pipeline will carry. It will corrode the pipe faster and lead to spills, said the protesters, adding that the oil is harder to clean up once it is spilled.

TransCanada officials insist that the Keystone XL line meets the highest safety standards for all grades of crude. The southern portion of the proposed Alberta-to-Gulf-Coast line will be used to carry light sweet crude from the U.S. storage hub in Cushing, Okla., to ease a supply glut there, but the company says Alberta's oil sands-derived oil is indistinguishable from other heavy-grade crude oils.

Twenty-two-year-old Maya Lemon, a native of Nacogdoches, isn't convinced. While the pipeline project promises economic benefits to states hosting the line, Lemon has aligned with the protest movement pitted against it.

"In east Texas, we know pipelines. I've grown up around pipelines, and this pipeline is different than any pipeline that we've been around before," Lemon said. "Additionally, there are some questions about the ways in which it is being constructed, and I don't feel that those questions are being adequately addressed by TransCanada."

For now, the law is squarely on TransCanada's side.

The company was awarded easements from landowners by either mutual agreement or court order. While work is under way, the easements are considered restricted construction zones, subject to federal occupational safety laws. Entry requires safety training and company permission. Trespassing has been strictly enforced along the route.

Spoon said her team has taken care to get the landowner's permission to stay just outside the easement at the latest protest, on a patch of land where Keystone XL will cross the Angelina River. On Monday morning, that permission was rescinded, and police gave her team 30 minutes to clear the site. Spoon and others say they are also being sued by TransCanada for not respecting the company's legal right of way.

For hundreds of private tracts in Oklahoma and Texas that the line will cross, TransCanada has peacefully negotiated access with the landowners. Only a small percentage have fought the company in court.

But at a morning rally at a park next to Lake Nacogdoches, one landowner who said TransCanada had seized part of his property through eminent domain announced his plans to go to court against TransCanada.

'By God, I'm coming for you'

Mike Bishop complained bitterly about the company's treatment of his property near Douglas, Texas. The lawsuit he said he plans to file will go after TransCanada, the Texas Railroad Commission and Nacogdoches County for not providing the same deferential treatment of concerns about this region's aquifer as was given to Nebraska citizens trying to protect the Ogallala Aquifer. Keystone XL's proposed northern leg stalled when Nebraska officials raised issues.

"I've been threatened, intimidated, lied to, deceived," Bishop said. "By God, I'm coming for you, and I'm going to kick your ass!" he warned the officials he plans to name in the suit.

Even people who don't own land where Keystone XL will cross say they are worried.

One protester named Julia said her family operates a blueberry farm 1 mile from where the line will cross. She said she fears that a rupture of the line could contaminate the surrounding land and water, threatening her farm. Another broke down in tears when describing her fear of what oil sands pollution could do to the place where she raised her children.

Jordan Johnson, 22, another native of the area, said she fully appreciates that Texas and the Piney Woods are already crisscrossed with several oil pipelines moving produced crude oil to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico Coast.

But Keystone XL is different, she insists. She believes east Texas has become a guinea pig for companies and government agencies curious about how people will react once crews start building Keystone XL's controversial northern expansion that would cross from Canada, and about how to respond in the event of a spill, something she and other protesters say is inevitable.

"We don't know the cleanup that's involved when, not if, but when there is a spill in this pipeline," Johnson said. "East Texas is kind of being made into a laboratory, to kind of figure out what exactly it's going to mean to clean up a spill associated with this type of oil."

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