By Peter Gorman
Oct 21, 2012
It was a dreary late- September morning in the East Texas woods outside of Winnsboro, chill and drizzly. Everything was wet or damp except for the spirits of four young people sitting in a tree stand. They were perched 30 feet above the path of the Keystone XL pipeline, slated to carry very heavy and very toxic Canadian tar sands bitumen from Cushing, Okla., to refineries in Houston.
The four had already spent several days on the 100-foot-long catwalk with a tarp-covered platform at one end, called The Wall. All said they were prepared to stay on as long as it took to stop the machinery from cutting a swath through some of the oldest forest in Texas. Several hundred yards to the south, a “Tree Village” 80 feet off the ground is home to several more protesters.
“We are committed to staying here as long as we have to in order to stop the pipeline,” one of the sitters shouted down to the reporter on the ground. “The Keystone pipeline must be stopped.” The protesters declined to give their names, in part because they’d rather not get sued and in part because they said they fear retaliation against their families.
The nine or 10 tree-sitters are all under 40 and in good shape, but their endurance is being tested. If staying in cold, wet, cramped quarters on a small platform for days or weeks on end isn’t difficult enough, TransCanada upped the ante in early October by putting three sets of floodlights on the sitters, 24 hours a day, and running loud generators that make sleep almost impossible. The company has also hired local off-duty police to patrol the woods around the trees to prevent food and water from being brought in and preventing the sitters from coming down from their perch at night to stretch their legs.
The story of their protest involves promises by a huge corporation that its project will lower gasoline prices in this country, provide good-paying long-term jobs to more than 100,000 people, and not harm the environment. Each one of those claims by TransCanada is being questioned, not just by the protesters but in most cases by government agencies and economic experts as well. A small but growing grassroots group calling itself the Tar Sands Blockade organized the protests to highlight the environmental danger posed by the pipelines to wide areas of the Midwest and Southwest, and they’re putting their bodies on the line to make their point.
In a bizarre response that sounded like that of a backwoods sheriff complaining about dirty hippies in the 1960s, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson sent out an opinion piece a few days ago, calling the protesters “self-appointed ‘eco-anarchists’ ” for whom it is time “to come down out of the trees, take a bath, and hit the road.”
But the blockade group includes Texas ranchers, property owners, business owners, and environmentalists — some of whom have endured pepper spray, dangerous Taser jolts, and chokeholds administered by local law enforcement officers in attempts to remove them from the path of the pipeline construction. They’ve already attracted support from across the country and across the political spectrum — including the Tarrant County Green Party, which has been passing along news and photos from the protests for weeks.
This week, despite the threat of arrest and being included in a lawsuit filed by TransCanada, more than 50 protesters entered the area where the tree-sitters are to show their solidarity with them. Eight were arrested; all face misdemeanor criminal trespassing charges.
What’s uniting them, according to their spokespersons, is a feeling that time is running out to prevent massive potential environmental damage. The tar sands, they say, should never enter the United States — and won’t help U.S. citizens if they do.
The oil extracted from those sands won’t be used to lower gasoline prices in this country because, the blockaders charge, it’s all going to be shipped overseas. The pipeline’s intended southern terminus is Port Arthur, a designated foreign trade zone where the oil products can be loaded onto oceangoing tankers. The protesters believe that the tens of thousands of promised permanent jobs will end up being a couple of thousand temporary jobs and a few hundred full-time pipeline-monitoring gigs, most filled by Canadians already working for TransCanada.
Most importantly, the protesters say, TransCanada has already shown itself to have a terrible record on pipeline safety, as have other tar sands pipelines already in operation. The blockaders say it adds up to a Canadian company seeking to transport the most dangerous and difficult-to-clean-up oilfield product across thousands of acres of land, much of it being taken by eminent domain or the threat of eminent domain, with almost no benefit being derived by the U.S.
The tree-sitters can’t physically stop the pipeline –– they know they’ll be starved out eventually. Their hope is that by the time they’re forced to leave, they will have attracted enough attention to spark a widespread public outcry that might lead to more investigations and convince federal officials to permanently deny permission for the pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canada border.
The Keystone project is actually two pipelines being built by TransCanada, the giant Canadian pipeline and power company, that will cross prairies, farmland, and iconic areas of the American midsection, joining in Nebraska and then traversing Oklahoma and East Texas to reach Port Arthur. Both are intended to carry tar sands bitumen — a mix of sand, clay, water, and bitumen, a heavy black oil that has to be diluted with large amounts of chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene, to make it light enough to move through a pipeline.
Both pipelines begin in the little oil town of Hardisty, Alberta, at the center of Canada’s huge tar sands deposits. The first, known as the Keystone, is already in operation, running from Hardisty to Steel City, Neb., then south to Cushing, Okla. Another leg runs east from Steel City to Patokia, Ill., where refineries produce primarily diesel fuel and other petroleum products.
The second arm, known as the Keystone XL, is supposed to enter the U.S. at Morgan, Mont., cross South Dakota, and join the initial pipeline at Steel City.
The Obama administration’s stand on the pipeline project has thus far been somewhat schizophrenic. In January 2012 the president denied permission for the XL pipeline to enter this country on its original route, citing insufficient environmental studies on its potential effects on the massive Ogallala aquifer. But in March, President Obama directed federal officials to cut through red tape to get the southern leg of the Keystone XL — from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast — under way. TransCanada officials have said that, rather than performing those additional studies, they will re-route that northern portion of the XL.
When the Keystone project was initially proposed in 2005, few people outside the oil industry and environmental groups knew what tar sands were. That had changed by the time the Keystone XL came along in 2008. The second pipeline became the center of an environmental firestorm because of its projected path across 1,700 bodies of surface and groundwater, including the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies water to portions of eight Midwest states and provides nearly 30 percent of all water used for agriculture irrigation in this country. Farmers in Nebraska and South Dakota stood with their Republican governors and environmental activists to fight the pipeline on the grounds that contamination of the aquifer by the tar sands was simply too great a risk.
Proponents of the line downplay the danger of ruptures and leaks. TransCanada touts the Keystone pipeline as a state-of-the-art project that will be “constructed to the highest industry standards.”
However, that reassurance was quickly undermined in the first Keystone line’s initial year of operation. The pipeline had 35 spills in the U.S. and Canada, a figure that Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute put at “100 times higher than TransCanada forecast.” The number of spills caused federal pipeline safety regulators in June 2011 to label the pipeline a “hazard to public safety,” and they issued a corrective action order to TransCanada.
The Global Labor Institute report suggested the high number of spills was a result of “the diluted bitumen’s toxic, corrosive, and heavy composition.” The material is considerably more abrasive — and therefore more corrosive — than conventional crude oil. Overall, according to the report, “between 2007 and 2010, pipelines transporting tar sands oil in the northern Midwest have spilled three times more oil per mile than the U.S. national average for conventional crude.”
The worst of those spills occurred on July 25, 2010, when a tar sands pipeline operated by TransCanada’s rival, Enbridge Corp, ruptured near the town of Marshall, Mich. In the 12 hours before the line was shut down, nearly a million gallons of diluted bitumen gushed from the 6.5-foot tear in the pipe, washing into the Talmadge Creek and from there into the Kalamazoo River and a downstream lake. The bitumen separated from the benzene and other chemicals and sank into the riverbed, making cleanup very difficult. More than two years later the cleanup is still not finished, and a 40-mile stretch of the river remains closed to public use. Enbridge has had to buy at least 130 homes along the contaminated waterway since the spill. Photographs after the spill show oil-coated birds and other animals reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Keystone opponents point to that spill as a forecast of what might happen to the Ogallala aquifer, should the second pipeline be built. If the Ogallala is contaminated by a tar sands spill, they say, the effect on midwestern agriculture and tourism, two of the region’s key economic engines, could be disastrous.
On Aug. 18, 2011, the National Congress of American Indians condemned the project because it would run through sovereign Native American land, disturbing possible burial grounds and sacred sites. Two days later, 65 people were arrested outside the White House grounds during a protest demanding that Obama shut down the entire Keystone XL pipeline by denying TransCanada’s request to allow it to cross the international border. Over the next two weeks, more than 1,250 protesters were arrested. The action culminated in a Nov. 6 protest that drew more than 10,000 people.
Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the pipeline an “unprecedented expansion of the tar sands development, putting our climate, land, and water at risk.
“The reality is that the Keystone XL is a pipeline through the U.S., not to it. We will simply be allowing the transport of the dirtiest source of oil on the planet for a foreign company, a product with environmental risks that don’t exist with conventional crude.”
Probably the most frequently used argument in favor of the Keystone XL project is the jobs it’s supposed to bring to the United States. TransCanada hired The Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm from Waco, to evaluate the project’s jobs potential. That report, released in 2010, estimated that the construction and associated development of the pipeline would produce more than 118,000 “person years” of direct employment and create as many as 250,000 spin-off jobs, which researchers said included bakers, bartenders, clergy, dancers, dentists, and hairdressers, who would be needed to take care of the pipeline workers.
The report became a call to arms to get Obama and the State Department to allow the XL portion of the pipeline to cross the border. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce claimed the project would create more than 250,000 permanent jobs in the States. Texas’ U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced on the Senate floor that the president needed to sign off on the project because it “promises 20,000 immediate jobs and 118,000 spin-off jobs.” Even Republican presidential hopeful John Huntsman repeated the 118,000 jobs figure.
Doug Grant and R.C. Saldaña-Flores locked themselves to a TransCanada machine near Winnsboro. Courtesy Tar Sands Blockade
But that figure was a misunderstanding of the 118,000 person-years of work the Perryman group had extrapolated. A “person year of work” is not a permanent position, and even a senior vice president at TransCanada put the number of permanent American jobs, once the pipeline was completed, at roughly the number of people employed by one or two Wal-Mart stores — several hundred people at best.
Still, the promise of tens of thousands of well-paying manufacturing and construction jobs — even if they were temporary — seemed to many like the sort of boost needed to get the economy back on track. But those numbers, too, turned out to be inflated: TransCanada, as it turned out, had already signed contracts with firms in India and Canada to manufacture about half the amount of pipe that would be used in the line. The U.S. Department of Labor estimated that the pipeline project would create about 6,000 to 7,000 jobs and that most of those would last only six to nine months.
TransCanada spokesman David Dobson, in an e-mail to Fort Worth Weekly, wrote that for both the Keystone XL and the Gulf Coast Project — the connecting line between Houston and Port Arthur — “the overwhelming majority of the pipe … will come from highly specialized North American mills.” However, North America includes Canada, and in a follow-up phone call, Dobson confirmed that “about half the pipe will be manufactured in the U.S.”
Then there was the promise of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil being turned into gasoline that would substantially lower the price at the pump for Americans. Environmental groups and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, noted that the final destination for the XL is Port Arthur, a foreign-trade zone that allows tax-free transactions with other countries. The tar sands currently entering the U.S. are being refined and utilized here, but opponents say that will not be the case with product shipped to the Gulf Coast.
“The refineries in Houston, with the connection to the foreign trade port, make this clear, that the Keystone XL is an export pipeline,” said Kate Colarulli, associate director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign.
Markey suggested that TransCanada’s real point of destination for the tar sands oil is Asia. TransCanada’s president for energy and oil pipelines Alex Pourbaix, denied that at a congressional hearing in December 2011, saying, “The most important role that Keystone will play is to bring energy security to the United States.”
Markey then asked Pourbaix if he could promise that all of the diesel and oil products made from the Keystone XL tar sands would be sold in this country.
“No, I can’t do that,” Pourbaix responded.
Among those arrested in front of the White House in 2011 was Julia Trigg Crawford (“Your Land is My Land,” April 11, 2012). Crawford is the manager of her family’s 650-acre Red’Arc farm that runs along the Bois d’Arc Creek and the Red River not far from Paris, in northeast Texas. Crawford had been approached by representatives of TransCanada in 2008 for permission to run a pipeline along a 40-acre pasture on one end of the property. When she and her family turned down the proposal, TransCanada upped the financial offer a couple of times, then eventually condemned the land it wanted via eminent domain in September 2011, not long after Crawford’s arrest.
Crawford, with the help of others, soon discovered that TransCanada had been involved with at least 89 land condemnations in Texas and had threatened hundreds of others with eminent domain before the company even had the permits necessary to build the pipeline.
She was incensed. TransCanada had the right to acquire land by eminent domain only if the company could prove that its pipeline was a “common carrier,” which means the company would sell capacity on the line to other companies to carry their petroleum as well as TransCanada’s own. If TransCanada was a private carrier, carrying only its own petroleum products, it wouldn’t have the right to take land through eminent domain in Texas. TransCanada had never produced information making good on its common-carrier claims, so Crawford and her family sued the company on those grounds.
While the lawsuit was playing out, Obama turned down TransCanada’s request to allow the XL pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canada border. The company vowed to develop a different route and reapply, but the setback didn’t stop TransCanada from continuing to take and threaten to take land by eminent domain, particularly in Oklahoma and Texas.
The company’s confidence lay in the fact that since the southern leg of the pipeline would be entirely within this country, no State Department approval was necessary. All that was necessary was to get the green light from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers certifying that certain ecosystems, notably wetlands and waterways, would be reasonably protected.
Opponents of the line regarded the Crawford lawsuit as one of the final legal obstacles that could stop the Keystone XL. It became an even more important issue when Obama, on March 22, told federal agencies that he wanted them “to cut through the red tape” on the southern leg of the XL, “and make this project a priority.”
If the Crawford lawsuit could stop TransCanada from taking land through eminent domain, the project might have to shut down. However, on Aug. 22, Lamar County Court at Law Judge Bill Harris ruled against Crawford — in a 15-word text message delivered from his iPhone.
The entire text of the message was:
“TransCanada’s MSJ [motion for summary judgment] GRANTED.
TransCanada’s NEMSJ [no evidence MSJ] GRANTED.
Crawford’s Plea to the Jurisdiction is DENIED.”
The decision meant the judge was taking TransCanada’s word that the Keystone XL pipeline would be a common carrier, although the company had presented no evidence to back up that assertion.
Crawford immediately began working on a possible appeal, but TransCanada wasted no time in taking advantage of the ruling. The company began felling trees and clearing land along the pipeline route from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast. And a small group of anti-pipeline protesters figured it was time for their first major direct action in Texas.
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
“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
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?”