Fighting Keystone XL in the Heart of Texas


Near the Dallas, TX suburb of Garland, where I grew up, is what I’ve always called “Deep East Texas.” The area holds a lot of memories for me to say the least. My parents owned a piece of property near Lone Oak, TX where I learned to drive. I spent two years in Commerce, TX at East Texas State University studying history. Further south is Huntsville, TX where my great-grandparents lived for over 50 years. Further down from that is Houston where I lived and worked as a purchasing buyer for an airline, a community college professor, a graduate student and, finally an environmental and social justice organizer for nine years. I spent much time during my youth fishing, swimming, hiking, camping and, playing “army” with my friends, brothers and cousins throughout those piney woods.

I traveled back home this past week, not to visit family or friends, but because TransCanada has started work on the Keystone Pipeline. The oil giant intends to connect the Alberta Tar Sands to the Texas Gulf Coast and flow out billions of gallons of oil to the rest of the world. While Obama prevented a northern leg from crossing the U.S.-Canadian border earlier this year, he had no problem with the construction of the 485-mile southern leg which will stretch from Cushing, OK to Nederland, TX carrying 700,000 barrels of crude daily. Construction has now begun at three points (aka “spreads”) which will stretch across Oklahoma and 17 Texas counties.

It’ll cross major waterways such as the Neches, Red, Angelina and Sabine rivers as well as the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which provides drinking water for more than ten million Texans. The pipeline route will run near the Big Thicket National Wildlife Preserve in southeast Texas. Big Thicket is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country and is full of bogs, lagoons, plants, trees and a variety of wildlife including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

The Keystone XL Pipeline not only brings the potential for environmental disaster on communities and eco-systems from spills and pollution, but climate scientist James Hanson has called the construction of this tar sands behemoth “game over for the climate.” The impacts of emissions from Keystone will be devastating to a climate already teetering on the brink of instability.

A New and Unusual Alliance

Last summer, an alliance came together when environmental writer Bill McKibben called for weeks of sustained civil disobedience at the White House to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. Rural landowners in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas journeyed to Washington D.C. to participate with hundreds of environmentally and climate minded activists in the “Tar Sands Action.” Those landowners have returned home to find the pipeline moving south from Cushing, OK to Nederland, TX.

Over the past few years, TransCanada has either pressured Texas landowners to sign away parts of their property for small amounts of money or taken them to court on grounds of “eminent domain” to build the pipeline. These bullying tactics coupled with impending climate disruption have created an unusual coalition of groups fighting the pipeline.

While the bigger green groups, which stated last year “there is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone XL pipeline, and those of the protesters being arrested daily outside the White House,” have been largely quiet on the southern front, groups of radical environmentalists and landowners have banded together as the Tar Sands Blockade (TSB) to start a kind of guerrilla front against TransCanada’s pipeline construction operations.

The first step has been by making inroads with local land owners opposed to the pipeline.

The Tar Sands Blockade have been active up and down the pipeline route building relationships with landowners and community members set to be most impacted by the project. Over the past few months, many more landowners have joined the cause, are becoming spokespeople and potentially participants in blockades. The Tar Sands Blockade organizers have made a point of going into the neighboring towns and participating in local knitting circles and frequenting local farmer’s market. They are in every local newspaper and are knocking on doors and making inroads with the local community.

This outreach has led to the creation of a new and unusual alliance between the Tar Sands Blockade and people supportive of the Tea Party. A key part of the Texas Republican Party’s platform includes language against “eminent domain.”

“I wish they would go away.”

In 1999, when native Texan David Hightower retired from the U.S. Air Force, he’d looked forward to a quiet country life. His parents had bought 70 acres north of Winnsboro, TX in 1957 when he was three. Hightower returned to start up a vineyard and plant an orchard. The property now has 500 running feet of productive muscadine grapes as well as peach, pear and persimmon trees.

Unfortunately, TransCanada had other plans. The company approached Hightower’s mother, in her 80’s, with the contract for the pipeline to cross the property. She signed without fully understanding what it would mean. While opposing the pipeline, Hightower didn’t want to add stress to his elderly mother in the last years of her life. She has since passed away.

The Keystone XL pipeline will cut about 200 feet from his front door and plow right through his vineyard and orchard. It will ruin the family business. Hightower talked to representatives about just moving the pipeline over a few feet, so at least the vineyard and trees would be spared. TransCanada refused to change the pipeline route.

Tar Sands Blockaders have met and begun to support Hightower’s family. They’ve had rallies and barbeques at the Hightower property in defiance of TransCanada’s goals of clear cutting the land. Last week, TransCanada’s contract workers showed up and began putting up fencing in preparation for the clearing of Hightower’s vineyard. Many Tar Sands Blockaders were there to bear witness against the oil giant.

When he saw TransCanada preparing to clear cut his vineyard and orchard, his response was “I wish they would go away.”

Everyone is a “Hero”

The Tar Sands Blockade has dubbed everyone risking arrest a “hero.” On Wednesday, five such heroes were arrested near Winnsboro, TX after three of them locked to an earth mover. The site was shut down until sheriff’s deputies arrested the blockaders and sent them to the Franklin Country jail.

The arrestees includes Douglas Grant, a 65 year old former employee of ExxonMobil turned climate activist who said:

having worked for years for Exxon, I know how enticing it is to want to develop the Alberta Tar Sands, but it’s just wrong; wrong for the folks who live near the surface mines and toxic ponds, wrong for the landowners who are coerced under duress into contracts or taken to court to have their homes stolen from them, and just wrong for the climate.

This was the third such “lock down” in the Tar Sands Blockade’s campaign that launched in July.

In late August, at a Livingston, TX pipe yard operated by a contractor working for TransCanada, seven were arrested in the Tar Sands Blockade’s first action for locking to a truck carrying piping for the pipeline. Arrestees included a Dallas area grandmother, a retired minister, a Houston area business owner and a local farmer. The grandmother, Tammie Carson, refused to unlock herself from the underside of truck, even after threats of pepper-spray, telling the deputies that she was doing it for her grand kids.

A second action happened near Saltillo, TX with the results being TransCanada sending its workers home for the day and the police giving up and leaving the protesters. One Hopkins County deputy was heard saying that he supported the blockade and that if he’d arrested the team, it would “have been the worst day of his career in law enforcement.”

McKibben’s call for civil disobedience last summer sparked a popular movement based on the idea that not enough was happening to stop climate change. Over 1200 were arrested sitting in at the White House in opposition to the pipeline and in the year since the Tar Sands Action, we’ve seen a new energy in the U.S. to slow the flow of tar sands oil.

Now in the tradition of forest defenders in the Northwest and mountain defenders in Appalachia, the Texas campaign has embraced escalated direct action as a tool to delay and stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s good to remember as climate movements move forward using these tactics, the more we escalate, the more we will sacrifice.

Scott Parkin is a climate organizer working with Rainforest Action Network, Rising Tide North America and the Ruckus Society.

November 24, 2015
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