A pipeline that threatens us all

October 3, 2012

Elizabeth Clinton, an activist from Texas, reports on the environmental--and personal--devastation being caused by the planned Keystone XL pipeline.

FOR MONTHS, activists across the U.S. and Canada have been organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline--a project being pushed through by the multinational, multibillion-dollar TransCanada Corp., which, if completed, will pump huge amounts toxic oil sludge known as "tar sands" from Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

The pipeline threatens to devastate the health of the environment and communities across a large part of the U.S. So this story has a personal element for all of us, since huge swaths of land will be affected by the tar sands project if it succeeds.

However, it takes on a personal dimension for me--the pipeline is slated to go directly through property in east Texas that my family has lived and labored on for several generations.

THE KEYSTONE pipeline has been in operation since 2010, running from the tar sands pits in Alberta to refineries in Canada and as far away as Patoka, Ill., and Cushing, Okla. In the first year of operation, the pipeline leaked approximately 12 times.

Part of the Keystone XL pipeline under construction
Part of the Keystone XL pipeline under construction

In the location where the pipeline begins in Canada, portions of the boreal forest have been destroyed. The boreal forest is often called the "rainforest of North America" and is the largest intact ecosystem in the world. It is home to large populations of wolves, grizzlies, caribou and lynx, along with thousands of other species of animals. Its waterways support many of the world's sea migratory fish and are essential to maintaining Arctic sea ice and stabilizing our global ecosystem.

Because of tar sands extraction, there now are open pit mines scarring the forest. The tar sands have made soil in some areas toxic, and dead fish are washing up on the shores of rivers, their bodies covered with open sores. If the tar sands continue to expand as planned, it is estimated that an area the size of Florida will be environmentally destroyed.

Furthermore, since the boreal forest contains the world's largest reserves of carbon, destroying this ecosystem would mean releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, with potentially dramatic consequences for climate change.

What you can do

For information about the Tar Sands Blockade, visit the group's website. You can also sign a petition telling TransCanada to stop brutalizing peaceful environmental protesters.

The process of extracting oil from the tar sands is much more complicated than pumping conventional oil from the ground. It requires steam heating and other processing to produce a petroleum slurry, followed by more dilution to break this substance down enough to be sent through a pipeline. The process requires massive amounts of water--and leaves behind giant toxic "ponds" in the refinement areas.

TransCanada is currently pushing to extend the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to refineries on the Gulf Coast in Texas, and to extend the pipeline from Alberta to Steele City, Neb. The U.S. government's environmental review claims that this proposed extension "would have a degree of safety over any other." But this is in direct contradiction to the recent history of frequent pipeline breaks, as well as the findings of numerous other reports.

Tar sands leaks have particularly devastating consequences. According to a report from the Cornell University Global Labor Institute, "The Impact of Tar Sands Pipeline Spills on Employment and the Economy":

There is strong evidence that tar sands pipeline spills occur more frequently than spills from pipelines carrying conventional crude oil because of the diluted bitumen's toxic, corrosive and heavy composition. Tar sands oil spills have the potential to be more damaging than conventional crude oil spills because they are more difficult and more costly to clean up, and because they have the potential to pose more serious health risks. Therefore, both the frequency and particular nature of the spills have negative economic implications.

The largest tar sands oil spill in the U.S. occurred on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. This spill affected the health of hundreds of residents, displaced residents, hurt businesses and caused a loss of jobs. The Kalamazoo spill is the most expensive tar sands pipeline oil spill in U.S. history, with overall costs estimated at $725 million.

The creation of the tar sands will especially impact indigenous communities in Canada. Almost all of the land on which tar sands extraction is currently occurring is on or near indigenous territory. The state has played an active role in seizing land, undermining treaties and forging signatures for the benefit of corporations. Local water and food supplies have been contaminated, and in areas where the tar sand pits have been created, certain types of cancer have skyrocketed. Shell has a new contract with TransCanada to expand a pipeline from the tar sands in Alberta to the west coast of Canada.

HOWEVER, THERE is another side to this horror story: ordinary people are organizing and resisting.

For years, there have been numerous protests in Canada against the tar sands. A sit-in in front of the legislature house in Victoria, British Columbia, is being planned for October 22 and has been endorsed by over 80 leaders from First Nations, environmental, academic, medical and artistic communities from across Canada.

Likewise, across the U.S., there have been protests against the dangerous threats posed by the Keystone XL pipeline. In Nebraska, activists protested the pipeline's threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, a critical source of drinking water for the Great Plains, which the pipeline was slated to cross over.

In August 2011, activists organized a sit-in outside the White House to demand that Obama deny the proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline. Over the 15 days of the protest, police arrested 1,252 people, including Dr. James Hansen, a leading climate scientist who works for NASA.

In November 2011, thousands of people--Nebraska ranchers, Midwestern union members, First Nations leaders, environmentalists and students from across the U.S. and Canada--again converged on the White House, demanding that Obama deny the Keystone XL proposal.

Following this protest, Obama announced that he would delay a decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 election. This was a victory for everyone who opposes the tar sands project and the total environmental destruction it will bring.

However, the story doesn't stop there. A portion of the Keystone XL pipeline was re-branded under the name of the "Gulf Coast Project." At a speech that Obama delivered in Cushing, Okla., on March 22, 2012, he stated, "And today, we're making this new pipeline from Cushing to the Gulf a priority. So the southern leg of it we're making a priority, and we're going to go ahead and get that done."

The project was given final approval by the federal government in July 2012--further exposing the contradictions of the Obama administration. While the Democrats must try to appease their base--including millions of people who care about the environment--they must also keep U.S. markets open to business and profits flowing into the pockets of billionaires.

The stakes are high. As a recent open letter from environmentalists, activists and landowners who will be affected by the Keystone XL pipeline, addressed to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, put it:

You have been informed by 20 prominent scientists--including one of the nation's top climate experts, Dr. James Hansen--that Keystone XL "would practically guarantee extensive exploitation" of Canada's tar sands, which "on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control."

You have also been warned by Dr. Hansen--who along with other scientists links deadly heat waves to climate change--that such exploitation would mean "game over for the climate."

TRANSCANADA--a company whose total assets were worth $48.9 billion in 2011--approached my grandmother in 2010, attempting to contract out a portion of her land for the pipeline. The company was not open with her about what the pipeline would be used for or the negative environmental impact that the pipeline would have. They told her that the pipeline would only "clip" a portion of her property.

In January 2011, my mother died, and while my family was dealing with her death and while my grandmother's own mental and physical health was rapidly declining, TransCanada continued to bully and prey upon her. They told her if she didn't sign the contract, they would simply seize her land through eminent domain.

Finally, she gave in and signed the contract, forfeiting the use of the land to TransCanada. Because I was dealing with the death of my mother and because my family felt powerless to stop what was happening, I was not informed.

My uncle lives on this piece of property and is opposed to the pipeline coming through his home. The pipeline will run less than 50 yards from his front door and will run through what used to be his muscadine vineyard, which he has been growing and hand-cultivating for the past 12 years, ever since he retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force.

The whole time that he was in the military, he was told he was doing his part to serve his country. What hypocrisy for a multinational corporation to be given the green light by the government to destroy his land and his passion.

My uncle is a man who very much keeps to himself. However, he recently allowed several protests against the pipeline to take place on his property.

TransCanada reacted to this; they approached my uncle telling him that they would be coming through his land, and if he resisted, they would seize his land through eminent domain. They even threatened to sue him, something they have done to other landowners in the area who have resisted. They offered my uncle money, a drop in the bucket compared to the profits that they will make--which he accepted. In conversations with him, he told me he felt powerless to stop the pipeline.

TransCanada has pursued a strategy of further isolating these rural landowners and bullying and strong-arming them into submission. What once was my uncle's vineyard has now been bulldozed to make way for the pipeline.

This is land on which I grew up; I have vivid memories of playing in the woods, watching animals, and dreaming next to the nearby pond as a small child. Now, when I am there, I cannot stop myself from thinking about what will happen to this land if the pipeline breaks.

As my cousin, Jerry Hightower, told me:

The Keystone XL pipeline is one of the most dangerous projects I have seen occur. It is a three-foot diameter pipe that intends to be run from Canada to refineries in Texas. I feel confident that there will be problems or breaks along the way due to faulty pipes, or faulty welds, or faulty workmanship, or just general construction problems. This is too huge of a project to not have problems along the way.

This pipeline is passing not only through my family land, but also through our local area lakes, streams and waterways; it's burrowing under. If any problems occur during the path of that destruction, all of our local waterways from my immediate area will be contaminated. Local homes and properties from one end to the other will be impacted.

My family has not been happy about the taking of the land and the running of the pipe. And that story is being echoed across Texas and Oklahoma right now and will ultimately be echoed throughout the entire United States.

The workers who I've seen and spoken with talk like nobody is happy the pipeline is there when they come into different people's yards. Most of the people are unaware of what is being run through the pipeline; it is a tar sands pipeline that they are going to destroy a rainforest in Canada for, and then run a pipeline all the way to refineries on the Gulf Coast, where refineries will refine out the oil they hope to sell on the global market. The byproducts that are left over will be disposed of here in Texas.

I feel like besides a few people getting rich, most of what everyone will get from this is a bunch of sick waste.

TEXAS ACTIVISTS are vowing to continue the fight to stop the pipeline. Over the past several years, an organization called Stop Tar sands Oils Permanently (STOP)--composed of a group of landowners who oppose the construction of the pipeline--has been organizing in the heart of east Texas.

Recently, another group, called the Tar Sands Blockade, has formed. They state on their website:

Tar Sands Blockade is a coalition of Texas and Oklahoma landowners and organizers using nonviolent direct action to physically stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. We intend to force the termination of this dangerous pipeline. It isn't going to be easy, but inaction is far more risky than taking a stand. Together, we can create a more clean and livable world that works for everyone, regardless of their background.

So far, at least 14 people have been arrested in Texas while engaging in direct nonviolent action against the pipeline.

On September 23, members of the Tar Sands Blockade launched a tree-sit in the heart of the woods of east Texas. They have built many treehouses and a large wall directly in the path of the pipeline. TransCanada is rapidly approaching the wall and rallying local law enforcement.

I recently spoke with someone who is stationed on the wall of the blockade. "The tree-sit is not what is unacceptable," he said. "The fact that we have been pushed to this is what is unacceptable. There can be no compromise on this. If we weren't living in a system like this, this project would never have been done."

On Tuesday, September 25, 2012, two protesters engaged in non-violent resistance in east Texas, attempting to slow TransCanada's advancement toward the tree village by locking themselves onto TransCanada's construction equipment, stopping construction on one site for a full day. While they were locked onto the machine, they were subjected to torture tactics in the form of having their arms contorted, being handcuffed, and being put into headlocks, pepper-sprayed and Tasered.

These tactics were carried out on the request of TransCanada officials, who congratulated police on a "job well done."

Despite such repression, I believe that it is possible to stop the tar sands. We should take our inspiration from the movements across the Middle East, from the Chicago Teachers Union strike, from the Quebec student strike--and from the struggles of people in Canada, Nebraska and Texas who are resisting the destruction of the environment.

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