Elizabeth Clinton reports from East Texas on the impact of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the efforts to stop it from being constructed on the land her family has lived and laboured on for several generations.
For months, activists across the US have been organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline—a project being pushed through by the multinational, multibillion-dollar TransCanada Corp., which, if completed, will pump huge amounts of toxic oil sludge from Alberta’s Tar Sands across the US to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The Keystone XL pipeline has been in operation since 2010, running from the tar sands pits in Alberta to refineries in Canada and as far away as Patoka, Illinois, and Cushing, Oklahoma. In the first year of operation, the pipeline leaked approximately 12 times.
TransCanada is currently pushing to extend the pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma, to refineries on the Gulf Coast in Texas, and to extend the pipeline from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. The US government’s environmental review claims that this proposed extension “would have a degree of safety over any other.” But this is in direct contradiction to the recent history of frequent pipeline breaks, as well as the findings of numerous other reports.
TransCanada—whose total assets were worth $48.9 billion in 2011—approached my grandmother in 2010, attempting to contract out a portion of her land for the pipeline. The company was not open with her about what the pipeline would be used for, or the negative environmental impact that the pipeline would have. They told her that the pipeline would only “clip” a portion of her property.
In January 2011, my mother died, and while my family was dealing with her death and while my grandmother’s own mental and physical health was rapidly declining, TransCanada continued to bully and prey upon her. They told her if she didn’t sign the contract, they would simply seize her land through eminent domain.
Finally, she gave in and signed the contract, forfeiting the use of the land to TransCanada. Because I was dealing with the death of my mother and because my family felt powerless to stop what was happening, I was not informed.
My uncle lives on this piece of property and is opposed to the pipeline coming through his home. The pipeline will run less than 50 yards from his front door and will run through what used to be his muscadine vineyard, which he has been growing and hand-cultivating for the past 12 years, ever since he retired from a 20-year career in the US Air Force.
The whole time that he was in the military, he was told he was doing his part to serve his country. What hypocrisy for a multinational corporation to be given the green light by the government to destroy his land and his passion.
My uncle is a man who very much keeps to himself. However, he recently allowed several protests against the pipeline to take place on his property.
TransCanada reacted to this: they approached my uncle telling him that they would be coming through his land, and if he resisted, they would seize his land through eminent domain. They even threatened to sue him, something they have done to other landowners in the area who have resisted. They offered my uncle money, a drop in the bucket compared to the profits that they will make—which he accepted. In conversations with him, he told me he felt powerless to stop the pipeline.
TransCanada has pursued a strategy of further isolating these rural landowners and bullying and strong-arming them into submission. What once was my uncle’s vineyard has now been bulldozed to make way for the pipeline.
This is land on which I grew up; I have vivid memories of playing in the woods, watching animals, and dreaming next to the nearby pond as a small child. Now, when I am there, I cannot stop myself from thinking about what will happen to this land if the pipeline breaks.
As my cousin, Jerry Hightower, told me:
“The Keystone XL pipeline is one of the most dangerous projects I have seen occur. It is a three-foot diameter pipe that intends to be run from Canada to refineries in Texas. I feel confident that there will be problems or breaks along the way due to faulty pipes, or faulty welds, or faulty workmanship, or just general construction problems. This is too huge of a project to not have problems along the way.
This pipeline is passing not only through my family land, but also through our local area lakes, streams and waterways; it’s burrowing under. If any problems occur during the path of that destruction, all of our local waterways from my immediate area will be contaminated. Local homes and properties from one end to the other will be impacted.
My family has not been happy about the taking of the land and the running of the pipe. And that story is being echoed across Texas and Oklahoma right now and will ultimately be echoed throughout the entire United States.
The workers who I’ve seen and spoken with talk like nobody is happy the pipeline is there when they come into different people’s yards. Most of the people are unaware of what is being run through the pipeline; it is a tar sands pipeline that they are going to destroy a rainforest in Canada for, and then run a pipeline all the way to refineries on the Gulf Coast, where refineries will refine out the oil they hope to sell on the global market. The by-products that are left over will be disposed of here in Texas.
I feel like besides a few people getting rich, most of what everyone will get from this is a bunch of sick waste.”
Texas activists are vowing to continue the fight to stop the pipeline. Over the past several years, an organization called Stop Tar sands Oils Permanently (STOP)—composed of a group of landowners who oppose the construction of the pipeline—has been organizing in the heart of east Texas.
Recently, another group, called the Tar Sands Blockade, has formed. They state on their website:
“Tar Sands Blockade is a coalition of Texas and Oklahoma landowners and organizers using nonviolent direct action to physically stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. We intend to force the termination of this dangerous pipeline. It isn’t going to be easy, but inaction is far more risky than taking a stand. Together, we can create a more clean and livable world that works for everyone, regardless of their background. “
So far, at least 14 people have been arrested in Texas while engaging in direct nonviolent action against the pipeline.
On September 23, members of the Tar Sands Blockade launched a tree-sit in the heart of the woods of east Texas. They have built many tree houses and a large wall directly in the path of the pipeline. TransCanada is rapidly approaching the wall and rallying local law enforcement.
I recently spoke with someone who is stationed on the wall of the blockade. “The tree-sit is not what is unacceptable,” he said. “The fact that we have been pushed to this is what is unacceptable. There can be no compromise on this. If we weren’t living in a system like this, this project would never have been done.”
On Tuesday, September 25, 2012, two protesters engaged in non-violent resistance in east Texas, attempting to slow TransCanada’s advancement toward the tree village by locking themselves onto TransCanada’s construction equipment, stopping construction on one site for a full day. While they were locked onto the machine, they were subjected to torture tactics in the form of having their arms contorted, being handcuffed, and being put into headlocks, pepper-sprayed and Tasered.
These tactics were carried out on the request of TransCanada officials, who congratulated police on a “job well done.”
Despite such repression, I believe that it is possible to stop the tar sands. We should take our inspiration from the movements across the Middle East, from the Chicago Teachers Union strike, from the Quebec student strike—and from the struggles of people in Canada, Nebraska and Texas who are resisting the destruction of the environment.