Keystone XL protesters in Austin
Anti-Keystone XL protesters in Austin (Priscila Mosqueda)

Keystone XL Protests Rage On in East Texas [Updated]


UPDATED: See below.

In early October, I met a group of environmental activists who were camping in trees 80 feet above the ground near Winnsboro, hoping to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction in East Texas. Keystone XL would bring oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas and, in the protestors’ view, unleash massive environmental destruction.  Local landowners have joined in protesting against TransCanada, the corporation building the pipeline. TransCanada has angered landowners by seizing land in the pipeline’s path.

Two months later, the battle over Keystone XL rages on. Construction began on the southern portion of the pipeline in August, drawing a fresh round of protests. But U.S. State Department approval is needed to complete construction across the international border.

President Obama rejected TransCanada’s initial application for the permit last January, but expedited the permitting process for the pipeline’s southern leg. TransCanada reapplied for the cross-border permit and a bipartisan group of 18 senators wrote a letter urging the president to support the project.

Two weeks after Obama won re-election, the environmental group organized a protest outside the White House with a crowd of 3,000. Protesters in Texas barricaded themselves inside section of pipeline that was ready to be buried in Winona last week. In the Houston neighborhood of Manchester, environmental activists Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey locked their necks to tanker trucks in front of a Valero refinery they say will be a destination for tar sands oil in Texas. The two have launched a hunger strike that has now lasted 11 days.

New efforts to block the pipeline have popped up in court, too. Michael Bishop, a landowner from Nacogdoches County, sued the Texas Railroad Commission last week, complaining the agency has neglected its obligation to protect the environment when considering pipeline permits and that it failed to investigate what TransCanada intends to transport through the pipeline. Bishop, who is representing himself, is seeking an injunction to suspend TransCanada’s permit to build the pipeline.

Bishop’s is the first lawsuit involving Keystone XL that has been filed against a state agency. Other landowners have tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge TransCanada’s standing to claim eminent domain and condemn property.

TransCanada has been fighting back in court, too. In October, the company sued 26 people and three organizations that participated in various anti-Keystone actions, including protestors who took to the trees, those who locked themselves to machinery and others who blocked tree-clearing machines in Wood and Franklin counties. Eleanor Fairchild, the 78-year-old landowner who was arrested for trespassing on her own property in early October is also named in the suit. The company claims that delayed construction due to blockade actions “could realistically cause damages to Keystone in excess of $500,000.”

The first hearing for the case is set for January 26. Despite more civil disobedience actions and arrests, Tar Sands Blockade members said TransCanada hasn’t made any amendments to the suit or added any defendants. Blockaders believe the lawsuit is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation”—commonly known as a SLAPP—meant to keep them from speaking out against the pipeline. The attorney representing the group has not returned the Observer’s request for comment.

The protest plans continue despite the lawsuit. The Tar Sands Blockade has planned another action camp to train protesters early next year, while a national anti-Keystone demonstration is planned for President’s Day, February 18, outside the White House.

Some analysts expect President Obama will eventually approve the project, though there’s no agreement as to when that will happen. Until he makes that decision, neither side is likely to back down.

Updated Dec. 11, 2012: A Texas County Court at Law Judge in Nacogdoches County sided with landowner Mike Bishop and signed a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction Friday that will stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline on Bishop’s property until a Dec. 19 hearing.

“I will continue every effort to repel this foreign invasion and hopefully restore all of the property stolen by TransCanada via fraudulent means, to the rightful owners,” Bishop said in a press release today.

Bishop’s lawsuit challenges TransCanada’s characterization of tar sands as crude oil and cites the Texas Railroad Commission’s failure to study the composition of the tar sands oil when granting TransCanada its pipeline permit. Bishop argues that the tar sands oil does not meet federal and state definitions of crude oil because tar sands oil is a “solid mixture of hydrocarbons,” rather than a “liquid hydrocarbon,” when it is extracted. But TransCanada does not believe the injunction will delay Keystone XL, and spokesperson David Dodson said courts have ruled that tar sands are a form of crude oil.