Keystone XL Pipe Line: Pipe Dream
Photo by Laura Borealis

Iron Hands Behind the Pine Curtain


A version of this story ran in the January 2013 issue.

The call came, finally, at nine o’clock in the morning. I was sitting in a cheap hotel in Nacogdoches, literally tapping my foot with impatience, when my phone rang. It was Ethan Nuss, one of the press people with the Tar Sands Blockade, the movement that has been waging a nonviolent guerilla war against the Keystone XL pipeline for the last two months.

“You ready to go?” Ethan asked. “We have two options. Out near Wells we have some guys hanging from trees. And at another site . . .” he paused, consulting his notes, “four blockaders locked to heavy machinery. Cops have been called to both places.”

“Locked to?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t have any information. I think their platforms are tied in to TransCanada’s bulldozers, so the machines can’t move without spilling them. The cops just showed up. Should be interesting.”

I jumped in my car and headed west through the rolling pines of East Texas, toward Cherokee County.

There are places in this country where great conservation battles have been waged to save old-growth forests and endangered species. There are places in this country with long traditions of people risking their lives to block pipelines. East Texas is not one of them.

But ever since the Canadian pipeline company TransCanada started work near Winnsboro, blockaders have dogged the company’s every turn.

TransCanada has responded by, first, assuring the public that the movement has done nothing to slow construction, and second, suing every blockader who has been arrested, seeking hefty damages over lost construction time.

As a result, the blockaders, while hungry for attention, have been almost neurotically secretive. Ethan had called me several weeks earlier. The Blockade, he’d said, was going to perform some sort of action against the pipeline. He wouldn’t tell me where or when. But if I wanted to watch, well, he could let me know a day in advance. Which is how I ended up in Nacogdoches, waiting around like a secret agent in the world’s most boring spy thriller.

When I turned onto County Road 1911 outside the little town of Wells, I began passing sheriff’s department cars headed in the opposite direction. A few miles down the road, several dozen protesters were strung out along the shoulder, chanting slogans and holding signs that said things like KEEP CANADIAN TAR OUT OF TEXAS WATER.

Across a fence, on a pipeline easement claimed by TransCanada, four young men knelt in the dirt beside a row of parked bulldozers. Standing around them was a clump of pipeline workers and deputies from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. The kneeling men were wearing hooded sweatshirts and kerchiefs over their faces. Their arms were outstretched, locked through the machines’ treads.

At a right angle to the road was the Keystone easement, a wide swath of gravel and mud, a scar in the pines about a hundred yards wide. On the gravel were parked bulldozers and backhoes. A group of TransCanada men in vests and hard hats were standing on the gravel with several deputies.

I parked my car on the shoulder and walked up to the TransCanada men. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m a reporter with The Texas Observer.”

Texas Observer,” one of the deputies said. He was middle-aged with a formidable salt-and-pepper moustache. “That some kind of newspaper?”

I nodded.

“Well,” he said. “We’re not talking to media right now.”

One of the TransCanada men looked me up and down. “You’re trespassing on our easement right now,” he said. “You don’t have our permission to be here.”

Moustache looked at me meaningfully. “You’ve been warned.”

I looked down. There was still gravel beneath my feet. I took a few steps back onto the grass. “Still on it,” the TransCanada man said.

I walked back to the protesters. We all settled in to wait.

A blockader is detained by Cherokee County deputies.
A blockader is detained by Cherokee County deputies.  Laura Borealis

If you followed a line roughly north-northwest from where the activists were kneeling, up through Oklahoma and the Dakotas and into Canada, you’d end up at the tar sands, a vast moonscape of strip mines that holds one of the last great petroleum deposits in North America.

The fuel held by the tar sands, bitumen, isn’t great. It’s about the same consistency as road tar, and it takes an enormous amount of energy and water to turn it into anything you can put in a car. It’s the sort of fuel that, 10 years ago, wouldn’t have been worth the price of extraction. Now, crude oil is expensive enough to justify the costly pipeline that will make Canada’s tar sands economically viable.

Soon, if TransCanada has its way, that pipeline will run beneath the East Texas ground the protesters stand on. By late 2013, if everything goes according to the company’s plan, pipeline workers in mining towns around Fort McMurray, Alberta, will mix bitumen with condensed natural gas and send it down several thousand miles of tube to Port Arthur, where local refineries have invested $20 billion in refinery upgrades to process it into fuel.

But not everything has gone according to plan. On Aug. 28, four volunteers from the then-new Blockade locked themselves to the undercarriage of a TransCanada truck in Livingston. They were removed and arrested.

The next week, three protesters locked themselves to TransCanada machinery near Saltillo.

Since then, almost every week since construction began, blockaders have locked themselves to construction machinery. They’ve suspended themselves from trees in the paths of bulldozers. They’ve wedged themselves inside pipes. So far, more than 40 have been arrested.

The East Texas actions constitute an escalation of an already active protest movement against the Keystone. In the last year, TransCanada has found itself the target of protests by a startlingly broad coalition of ideological interests. There are landowners angered by TransCanada’s use of eminent domain to acquire easements. There are old-guard environmentalists worried about the potentially disastrous effect of a bitumen spill on local water supplies. (A spill two years ago by TransCanada’s main competitor on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan has cost more than $800 million and has yet to be cleaned up.) And ultimately, there is the big fear: that there is so much carbon locked up in the tar sands that burning it will lead to unchecked climate change. Climate advocate Bill McKibben has called the tar sands a “carbon bomb.”

But to list these complaints is, in a sense, misleading, because in the conversations I’ve had with protesters, logical arguments seem to fall away in the face of a sort of incoherent disbelief. For a long time, this state’s energy politics, from fracking to refining, have favored Big Oil at the expense of individual property rights and widespread pollution. Now, with a Canadian company tearing up East Texas, it’s as if the intolerability and extent of Big Oil’s license to ride roughshod has been cast into bold, unbelievable relief. The message that resonates is this: Really? Even here?

A blockader is detained after being pepper-sprayed by Cherokee County deputies.
A blockader is detained after being pepper-sprayed by Cherokee County deputies.  Laura Borealis

Here is how the Cherokee County deputies tried to detach the blockaders from the machinery: They pepper-sprayed them in the face. When the protesters still didn’t release themselves, the deputies set about the laborious job of cutting through the locks binding them to the trucks. They got the first pair free and dragged them over to a bulldozer while they set to work on the next pair.

This took the better part of an hour, during which time we could see the unlocked protesters leaning against the bulldozer. One protester’s face was beet-red. Sheriff’s deputies knelt around him. They seemed to be speaking. Suddenly the protester started laughing.

“You should hear what he said,” he yelled. “He just told me, ‘At least this time you’re not shouting ‘black power.’”

Eventually the second pair of protesters released themselves. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office says they did so voluntarily; the protesters say deputies pepper-sprayed them in the face repeatedly until they unlocked themselves.

Either way, at this point the deputies pulled the first protester’s hands behind his back. They tried to walk him to a van parked on the side of the road. Since he would not walk they dragged him by his elbows, his weight riding his pinned-back shoulders.

Suddenly all the protesters were yelling.

They had trained together in nonviolent resistance at an impromptu camp on the land of a local property owner. They had worked together, eaten together, probably slept together. These were their friends being dragged. I felt discipline breaking down around me; I heard voices growing high with rage and panic.

“Jesus,” a girl next to me shrieked, “you don’t have to torture him. What are you doing?”

“Don’t drag him like that,” someone else yelled. “You’re going to ruin his shoulders.”

“At least turn him over,” another yelled. “Drag him face-up.”

I watched him being loaded into the van. The pepper spray had not been washed off; his face was swollen and contorted, with long ropes of mucus hanging from his nostrils. Protester “medics” arrived with water bottles, begging to be allowed to wash the blockaders’ faces. The deputies ignored them.

“He’ll get medical care at the station,” one said as he maneuvered the guy into the van.

Then, one by one, the deputies dragged the rest of the protesters into the van. (After the first one, they dragged the protesters face-up.) The fourth protester consented to walk.

Earlier that day, at a second site where protesters sat on platforms in the trees, the platforms chained to construction equipment, I’d arrived just in time to see a heavyset deputy with a thick moustache pepper-spray a 75-year-old woman in the face. The name on his badge was Darby. The protesters had been blocking a law-enforcement truck, so he stepped out and, after ordering them to clear the road, immediately pulled out a can of mace and started spraying at eye level. The woman, Jeanette Singleton, couldn’t get out of the way in time. What struck me more than her face was the look on his: a sort of bored contempt, like the face of a resting bulldog. When he sprayed her, Singleton crumpled to the ground in shock, and Darby’s lip did not quiver.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I woke up several times with my heart pounding from strange dreams that I couldn’t recall. It sounds like a cliché, and maybe a little ridiculous, but when I closed my eyes all I saw were faces. The face of the protester, dripping mucus, as he was wrestled into the van.

Deputy Darby’s face, impassive as he sprayed the crowd. The face of a female deputy, twisted into a nervous smile as she patrolled the roadway holding a can of mace. I would not have thought these things would have much effect on me, but they did. It made me wonder how the participants, on both sides of the blockade, have been affected.

I was troubled, too, by the intensity of emotion I’d seen on both sides. The protesters yelling at the deputies; the TransCanada man threatening me with arrest if I didn’t get off the easement; the slick military operation of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, which had rolled through the protesters as though dispersing a riot. I’d overheard some of the blockade organizers talking about the effect of the pepper-spraying on the locals who had seen it.

“I think it helps us,” she had said. “I think they’re going to be radicalized.”

When I went to the sheriff’s office in Rusk, a few miles down the road, I saw the same deputies who’d been waving cans of mace at the protest site. Now they were wandering the halls, holding cups of coffee or clipboards. I was surprised and a little embarrassed to find myself afraid.

Sheriff James Campbell sat me down in his office. He was guarded but polite. I had a list of prepared questions but was suddenly unable to remember them. I asked him about the pepper-spraying of protesters.

“They were breaking the law,” he said. “They were blocking a roadway, and they wouldn’t move. We were trying to come through with a truck, and they were putting themselves in danger.”

My head swam. “So it’s standard operating procedure to use pepper spray on nonviolent protesters?”

“My deputies did their jobs,” he said, “and I’m proud of them. You know, they had to put their own lives at risk to go up in those cherry-pickers. If those protesters had resisted . . .”

He paused. “You know,” he said, “that truck driver was scared out of his wits when he saw them rush the road. He thought they were going to pull him out of his vehicle or something.”

Then I called David Dodson, a Houston-based TransCanada PR guy. I told him I’d seen an elderly woman maced. “Oh my God,” he said, “that’s awful.”

“David,” I said, “I kind of feel like this happened in TransCanada’s name.”

“Now hold on a second, Saul,” he said. “We do not tell the police what to do. Our guys aren’t even there. Our procedure is that when approached by protesters, contractors have stood down and removed themselves and notified supervisors. Supervisors notified law enforcement, and law enforcement takes appropriate action, and that’s what happened there.”

I had seen TransCanada men standing by the whole time. So had Ron Seifert, one of the Tar Sands Blockade spokespeople. When I told Dodson that, he told me he’d have to call me back, which he did. “No, sorry, Saul, they were there,” he said. “They just stepped back to observe. They were not giving any guidance to the police.”

I asked about being threatened with arrest if I walked on the right of way. “Now hold on,” Dodson said. “TransCanada can’t threaten you with arrest. We don’t have that authority. Now, if he said you weren’t allowed on the right of way, you’re not. You didn’t have proper training or safety equipment. It’s a liability. It just isn’t safe. Now, if you want to get on the right of way, we’ll get you on the right of way. But even the CEO needs training . . .”

“David,” I said, “there were cops on there. They didn’t have safety equipment. Were they trained?”

“Hmm,” Dodson said. “That’s a good question. I’ll get back to you on that.”

Two weeks later, on Dec. 3, three protesters locked themselves inside a pipe near Winona. When the deputies finally got them out, they were arrested.

They were charged with a number of misdemeanors. Their bail was set at $65,000 each. As of press time, they were still in jail. Construction on the Keystone continues.