Drawing a Line in the (Tar) Sand

Protests in Texas delay the Keystone pipeline while opposition to it grows.
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Posted October 17, 2012 by PETER GORMAN in News

The Tar Sands Blockade had started organizing long before the ruling came down in the Crawford case. One of the early organizers was Ron Seifert, a 31-year-old computer network installer and group fitness trainer originally from Wisconsin. For three months in late 2011, he and others joined longtime Denver-based environmentalist Tom Weis, who had organized a bicycle trip along the proposed pipeline route from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast. The motivation for the ride, Seifert said, “was to plant seeds of resistance along the pipeline route and water it where those seeds already existed.”

When the group’s website was launched in June, one of the items posted was a weekend direct-action training camp in July. Attendees ­— including Kim Feil, the Arlington gas drilling activist — were taught elements of nonviolent protest, ranging from how to interact with police to how to lock themselves to machinery. For some there was also an introduction to tree climbing for aerial blockades — the tree stands.

Sam Avery (left) is locked to a tree-cutter at the tar sands blockade, while Gary Stuard holds a protest banner. Coutesy Tar Sands Blockade

Sam Avery (left) is locked to a tree-cutter at the tar sands blockade, while Gary Stuard holds a protest banner. Coutesy Tar Sands Blockade

“There were lots of  little but important things as well,” said Feil. “We were taught to hide our thumbs in our palms when we locked hands because police go for the thumbs. And we were taught to go limp when arrested so that we couldn’t be seen as assaulting any officers. I thought it was a great camp.”

In mid-August, the Tar Sands Blockade went public with it first action. Several members entered Keystone XL staging locations in Oklahoma and Texas and unfurled banners announcing their presence.

“We were trying to alert people — through media coverage of the banner drop — to the fact that the construction on the pipeline had started,” said Seifert. “Very few people knew that trees were being cut and pipe was being delivered because there was no public notice by TransCanada.”

According to Seifert, it was only after that initial action that TransCanada admitted it had begun site work on the pipeline. The banner also alerted TransCanada of the Tar Sands Blockade’s existence and its aims.

After the Crawford ruling, the blockaders decided to up the ante. On Aug. 28, several activists showed up at a work yard in Livingston, Texas, where pipe slated for the Keystone was being loaded onto flatbeds. Four of the activists locked themselves onto the axles beneath a truck. One was Tammie Carson, an Arlington grandmother who’d never been an activist before.

“I had no idea what the Keystone Pipeline was … but after investigating and realizing the potential of environmental damage the tar sands could do, well, I needed to get involved,” she said. “Somehow I found the Tar Sands Blockade website and saw they were having a weekend training session, and I went. And about a month later I got a call saying there was going to be a direct action and would I like to participate. I said yes.”

The truck to which Carson and the others locked themselves was at the entrance for the lot. Since  it took police several hours to cut the protesters free, the action closed down that lot for a full day. It also resulted in Carson and the three others being arrested and charged with criminal trespass. Their arraignment is slated for late October; none expects to receive more than a fine.

Was the arrest worth it?

“Absolutely,” she said. “I am still involved. I’ve been to rallies against the pipeline in Denton and Houston. And I’ll keep doing whatever I have to do — with thoughtful, nonviolent action — to bring awareness to more people about this. I won’t be done until they park their equipment and go home.”

Another blockader who came to the cause unexpectedly was Benjamin Franklin, a small-business owner from Houston.

“My whole life I’ve benefited from gas and oil — not because I worked it, but because friends and family did,” he said. “But tar sands are different. Not only are they very poisonous, but the entire process for the Keystone pipeline has been an abuse of power— taking land before court cases have been settled, for instance.”

Franklin got involved while in Arizona with his church. He met some people involved with tar sands protests in Utah who told him they’d heard about a Texas group that would be doing direct action.

“So I kept an ear out for that, and when I saw there was going to be a direct-action teach-in in Houston, I went to the meeting,” Franklin said. He was impressed and subsequently attended the two-day camp that Carson had attended. When he was later asked if he’d like to be part of a direct action, he didn’t hesitate.

“On Sept. 25, I was on some of the contested property outside of Winnsboro. I’d never trespassed before. I was with a woman named Shannon Rain Beebe — she goes by Rain — and we’d never met before. Our plan was to lock ourselves to a tree-cutting machine, but they were through clear-cutting in the area that day, so we went after a backhoe.”

Franklin and Rain approached a backhoe and signaled to the operator to stop. When he did, they attached themselves, through locked steel sleeves, to a part of the machine. “The operator tried to shove Rain off the backhoe when we first tried to attach, but she didn’t fall off, and as soon as we were attached, he calmed down.”

Two hours later four Wood County police officers arrived and immediately tried to cut the sleeve. When they discovered it was steel and not plastic, they called in someone who could cut steel.

“When they couldn’t cut the pipe, they huddled for a minute and then told us we were under arrest and should release our hold on the pipe,” Franklin said. “We told them we were doing a peaceful protest and would not release.”

At that, said Franklin, the one officer not in uniform put him in a chokehold to try to get him to release. When that didn’t work, the officers shot pepper spray into the metal sleeve to hurt their hands enough to force Rain and Franklin to release. When that didn’t work, the officers announced that the pair was going to be tasered.

“They said I was going to be tasered for one second. They counted down from three, then jolted me in the thigh. It hurt. That was followed by a five-second burst in my upper left arm,” said Franklin. “I would have fallen except that they’d handcuffed me to the backhoe.”

When Franklin still would not release, the officers turned their attention to Rain and gave her a half-second burst, “and that’s when I released,” Franklin said. “I just couldn’t watch her get tasered. I could see how much it hurt her, and she said she had a heart condition. I just couldn’t let them do it.”

Both were arrested and taken to the Wood County jail, where they were charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.

A spokesman for the Wood County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the tasering or any other issue related to the arrests because, he said, the investigation is ongoing.

Franklin said he and Beebe have been warned that TransCanada is preparing a suit against them and others in the Tar Sands Blockade, though Franklin said he had not yet been served.

At the foot of one of the tree stands, Keystone heavy-equipment crews clear-cut some of the oldest forest in Texas. Peter Gorman

At the foot of one of the tree stands, Keystone heavy-equipment crews clear-cut some of the oldest forest in Texas. Peter Gorman

Others have been. Ramsey Sprague, a former manager at Fort Worth’s Spiral Diner and former co-chair and organizer of the Tarrant County Green Party, said that he’d recently been served with a SLAPP suit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation — along with 24 others and three organizations. In the suit, TransCanada seeks an injunction against further interference and alleges that the company has been damaged financially. Sprague and Seifert serve as the group’s spokesmen.

“Basically, TransCanada has included [as defendants] the names of everyone who has been arrested in the nine direct actions in Texas so far,” Sprague said.And it’s amazing that they’re getting away with it. The most we are guilty of is trespassing, while TransCanada is in the midst of a number of lawsuits challenging their right to even take any of this land by eminent domain.”

Franklin, like Tammie Carson, said he cannot afford to do a lot of direct actions that will result in additional arrests but that he will continue to work with the Blockade, possibly through rallies and fund-raisers.

“What people need to understand about these protests, about the Tar Sands Blockade, is that if people are willing to get arrested … well, we are showing that we’re the edge of a much larger group of people who are unhappy with what is happening with this pipeline,” Franklin said. “And that group will hopefully make judges think about eminent domain, make them re-examine their decisions rather than just giving carte blanche to the oil companies.”

He’s not alone in thinking that elected officials, including judges, have given too much power to the oil companies. “I think people who care about the planet are rightfully disgusted with the elected officials of this state,” said State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth. “And while I cannot endorse or condone this action, I can certainly understand these acts of desperation.”

Sharon Wilson, a representative of Earthworks’ Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project and an avid activist against urban drilling, agreed. “Our elected officials are not listening to us,” she said. “Peaceful resistance is one of the few things left to us now.”

Despite Patterson’s advice to the tree-sitters to leave Texas, many of those who have joined the campaign against Keystone live here. One is Eleanor Fairchild, a 72-year-old landowner in the pipeline’s path in Winnsboro. She was threatened with eminent domain and so allowed TransCanada to pass through her land. But she is not happy. (She’s one of many landowners along the pipeline route who are taking part in the campaign, including, in some cases, by allowing protesters access to their land.)

“They [TransCanada crews] are on my land right now,” she said in early October. “They’ve cut all the trees in a huge swath. It’s like a death in the family. I know there is nothing I can do, but I am against this.”

Fairchild was recently arrested with actress Daryl Hannah for trying to block equipment on her land. She said she is not against pipelines per se, but she is against tar sands coming through the United States, where it might poison the land while making money for a handful of people and not providing anything for those living here. “It is just so wrong,” she said.

David Hightower saw a slice of his land in Winnsboro disappear to the Keystone XL as well. He said that two years ago someone from TransCanada came by to ask about a pipeline easement. “Well, it was my mother’s land, so she made the decision to OK it, and they gave her a very modest check, and that was that.”

He thought the company would use an existing pipeline easement. Instead, when the tree cutters came through a couple of weeks ago, they cut through his front yard, eliminating the muscadine grapes he’d been cultivating for 12 years — grapes he used to make jelly and wine.

“Then the protestors came and asked if they could have a protest in my yard, and I was on the news for that. And when it went out that my grape vines had all been killed, the company came and gave me compensation for the damage. And I accepted their blood money.”

Hightower, who retired to his mother’s place to be a gentleman farmer in 1999 after serving 20 years in the Air Force, said he thought the people from the Tar Sands Blockade “were absolutely delightful.” He does not feel the same way about the Keystone XL.

“It’s not good for America, not good for anyone. They only took a little piece of this land but chose to take it right in the front yard. And I’m just one person [among many] from Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. I’m pretty sure it’s impacting everyone along that line the way it is impacting me.”

Dobson, TransCanada’s spokesman, sees it all very differently.

“We think the Tar Sands Blockade is unfortunate. Many of those people are from out of state, and they are illegally trespassing on private property in order to protest our product,” he said. “And it’s doubly unfortunate that they’re taking these actions in an attempt to prevent hard-working Americans from getting to their jobs. If these protesters had their way, thousands of Americans would be thrown out of work.”

Hogwash, said Hightower. “I talked to the folks who are working on this project, and they’re all people who were already working on other pipeline projects. Not one of them has told me he was out of work before this job. So I don’t believe they’d be thrown out of work if this pipeline were stopped. They’d just go back to work on other pipelines.”

 

 ********

At the heart of the Tar Sands Blockade’s current direct action are the tree-sitters. They are at enormous physical risk — a fall from the catwalk could be fatal. A fall from the higher perches of the Tree Village almost certainly would be. Moreover, TransCanada’s tree-cutters have dug deep into the earth just a few yards away, which could destabilize the trees where the protesters are hunkered down. Thus far, nearly three weeks into their arboreal protest, neither those considerations nor hunger or discomfort have brought them down.

One tree-sitter, who identified himself only by the initials JG, said in a recent phone interview that he and others worked for several weeks to build the tree stands before the TransCanada crews arrived. The sounds of logging equipment made it hard to hear his words.

“Building the Wall was a unique challenge,” he said. “Trying to find a way to block the relatively narrow path of the pipeline, which is only about 120 feet wide, was difficult, and that’s why this thing is 100 feet from end to end.”

He said funding for the tree stands and for the rest of the Tar Sands Blockade was coming in small donations to the website. “We’ve had a few people donate $1,000, but most of it comes in much smaller [amounts] than that.” Both tree stands had good supplies of food and water initially, but JG said resupply is becoming more difficult because of the local police hired as guards by TransCanada. He mentioned having climbed down to attend a barbecue at David Hightower’s — and having a bit of Hightower’s muscadine wine — as a real treat.

Then his tone changed. “Look, there are helicopters overhead and tree-cutters not 10 feet from where we are, and I don’t want to talk about who taught us to build this or how we get our food. I understand there is probably curiosity about us, but that’s not important.”

What is important, he said, is that “there are people in Alberta, Canada, being poisoned by these tar sands. People are dying of cancer, the rivers are being poisoned, and then there is this pipeline that’s going to take this poison across the U.S., across vital aquifers, and risk the health of more people so that the corporation can make more profit.

“We are here to try to protect our homes, friends, and neighbors,” he said. “We’re doing our best to be crafty and wily and to use every skill we know to take care of each other in this local community.”

He said he’s prepared to stay until the pipeline project has become a national issue and people from many locales have been inspired to work against it.

Seifert was asked about how his group might define a victory.

“We talk about victory in a couple of ways,” he said. “A decisive victory that stops this pipeline is only possible if we have massive mobilization of so many people that the physical pipeline cannot go forward. Or if there is enough political will engendered to cause class-action lawsuits that can get injunctions against the pipeline.”

Both of those possibilities face pretty slim chances in Texas, he admitted. But he also said it would be a victory if the Blockade and other activists can contribute to stopping the northern section of the pipeline.

“For more than 100 years, big oil has had its way with people,” he said. “People feel powerless … . And there are a handful of powerless people right now sitting in treetops on platforms made of wood and rope, and the industry has no answer for them. They don’t know what to do. So maybe this can be a wake-up call to let people know that they can fight back.”

It is exactly that spirit that has TransCanada’s Dodson worried. “We’re concerned about the blockade,” he said. “No question about it. How do you think they’re doing? Do you think the protests will keep growing?”


18 Comments


  1.  
    Fannie Bates

    These young protestors are American patriots. It is pathetic that a foreign corporation would be allowed to rip out our trees so they can make a profit.




  2.  

    Solidarity! Prayers for those in harms way.




  3.  
    Doug

    Cold, wet and dreary? Sounds like they could use a little global warming about now.




  4.  

    It was reported that 10 or 11 people in one mobil home park near the Kalamazoo Michigan spill are now dead and only one of them was a senior citizen. PLease watch this video… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrFep4IJ6lY made by John Bolenbaugh.




  5.  
    CC

    Great story, Peter. I will save some good wishes for the tree sitters tonight. They are braver than I am.

    Who is leading the charge in oil sands development? Canadians, and Chinese state-owned enterprises giving them billions. Economic henchmen at work here in the U.S.

    China’s energy influence in Canada: http://business.financialpost.com/2012/05/10/industry-quiet-as-public-concern-grows-over-chinas-energy-influence-in-canada/

    At least some people are paying attention.




  6.  
    steve-o

    There’s nothing in east Texas. So now they truck it in with fuel burning trucks, crowding the highways, or I guess we just keep relying on Saudi or Venezuelan oil. Article seems a little biased. How would you fix the problem?




    •  
      Peter Gorman

      The U.S. does not make gasoline from Saudi oil. Just as a point of interest most of the oil in the middle east is what we make tar, computers, roads, and plastic tables with. To refine it into gasoline, you wind up paying what Europeans pay for gasoline: $8-11 dollars a gallon. So we have never depended on that oil for gasoline. Our gasoline comes from the Permian basin, from Pennsylvania, from Canada, from Mexico, from Venezuela–except for Pennsylvania, pretty much a straight line down the east side of the Rocky Mountains into South America.
      So I”m not sure what your point is. Thus far, no jobs have been created for anyone not already working. And there will not be. The oil, as most people suggest, has probably already been contracted to China. It will flow through a port that requires no taxes to be paid to the U.S. So if there are no new jobs–just a few hundred for people already working–no taxes, and no oil coming to stay in the U.S., then what exactly is the point of this pipeline? I tried to find that out while doing this story but did not get any answers from the oil/pipeline/refineries involved in this. I’m more than willing to be taught the other side because unbiased journalism is what journalists strive for. But if the other side won’t tell it’s story, well, then maybe an article will seem biased. But that is very very very far from the truth.




      •  

        Thank you for Peter for a fabulous, deep and well-written piece of investigative journalism on a story, and issue, which is both ignored by the mainstream, and is also an immensely important one. Many layers as well..which have have laid out as well as any other I have seen in my considerable study of the Keystone Pipeline issue. I hope this piece gets HUGE wide coverage (you deserve a Pulitzer for this, really) and, more so — you stay on TOP of it. Cheers.




    •  
      Kenneth Hargett

      Didn’t you read the article? It is a well know fact that the pipeline is being built to transport Canadian tar sands oil to tax free havens on the gulf with the intent to sell the refined oil to foreign countries, e.g. China, India and South America. This is the intent expressed in TransCanada’s own plans

      Americans take all the risk of the pipeline with absolutely no benefit.




  7.  
    CrystalG

    Solidarity! We stand with these brave Americans who are trying to protect OUR land from these greedy monsters. Unlike the fat-cats at TransCanada, I won’t be able to afford a fancy bubble to live in when they ruin our planet for good.




  8.  
    Karin

    Peter and FW Weekly– Thank you for the best and most indepth article I have read on the tarsands and the blockade. I have a family member participating in the protest, at great sacrifice, and now I fully understand why. Well done. It is encouraging to see that journalism is not dead.




  9.  

    Congratulations for this superb article. Everything presented is exactly as I know the facts to be. You have presented your readers with a story that includes a timeline and the all-important side issues that surround this issue. This is story that cannot be reduced to a soundbite, or an often repeated blurb of half-truths surrounding job creation. I wouldn’t worry about TransCanada’s side of the story; it is being told every day by carefully controlled mass media news outlets. Theirs is the only story has been told until now. As we know TransCanada has been interfering with news reporters doing their jobs, even if they are from the New York Times. They attempted to arrest those reporters until they realized who they were. They dropped the made-up arrest charges and let them go but wouldn’t allow them access to blockaders for their story. They did in the end get a story but not nearly as thorough as yours. Thank you from an East Texan.




  10.  
    Kenneth Hargett

    Great article!!!

    I wish all of the media would step up, do their jobs and tell the truth about the devastation of tar sands development and the public dangers of the toxic tar sands pipelines.

    You talk about the tar sands oil spill in Michigan two years ago. Watch this video about the toxic content of tar sands pipelines and interviews with people sick and possibly dying because of the spill. It truly saddens my heart. Search for “John Bolenbaugh, Part 1 of 2 COVER UP VIDEO short version” on YouTube.




  11.  
    Kenneth Hargett

    Just for your information in the future, Eleanor Fairchild did not give up her land. TransCanada’s easement was forced on her in the local court. It is now a question whether the higher courts agree that TransCanada has the right of eminent domain. Supreme courts have ruled against other pipelines. See http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2012/08/22/texas-supreme-court-reinforces-denbury-decision-on-eminent-domain-again/




  12.  
    Dave Waite

    Great article, thanks. I had heard of the protests, but this filled in a lot of the details. We should be proud of these people, taking on the might of foreign corporations.




  13.  
    General Persolvo

    The citizens of the World have united to fight tyranny both against their government and the domestic terror in the United States known as corporations. What makes you believe that Robust Texans, who a teetering on the edge of Succession to return to its own Republic, would allow a foreign company to intrude onto one of its own? Be very careful. Anyone who tramples of the Rights of the citizen, shall be punished. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.




  14.  
    Kim Cleverly

    Mr. Gorman, the tears in my eyes as I write this are not only for the brave humans in the trees, but for YOU, showing that journalism still exists. As this article goes viral (and it is) may you be blessed and protected by the integrity you have brought to this piece and your work, and may your example shine a light for so many other journos to be reminded of the power, value, and need for your profession. Thank you. Bless you. (And great thanks to the editors and publisher too!) With deep love from a Yank ex pat in Sydney Australia.





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