Eleanor Fairchild has been arrested twice: once outside the White House in August 2011 and again last month while standing on her own property near Winnsboro, Texas. In both cases, the 78-year old landowner was protesting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which will cut through her farm on its way from Cushing, Okla. to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Fairchild's latest arrest has made her a celebrity of the anti-pipeline movement, which was once dominated by the nation's largest environmental groups. In recent months, however, those groups have pulled back from Texas, leaving the spotlight on landowners like Fairchild and on the Tar Sands Blockade, a grassroots organization launched in June with the goal of stopping the project through nonviolent civil disobedience.
Although the mainstream environmental groups say they're still committed to stopping the Keystone XL, they've shifted their focus to the northern leg of the project, which would run from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska and which still lacks a federal permit required for construction. Stopping the southern leg—which begins in Oklahoma and runs through Fairchild's property on its way to the Texas coast—would be much more difficult, given that it's already under construction.
Texas landowners who oppose the pipeline are now fending for themselves and hoping that the Tar Sands Blockade will draw attention to their plight.
More than 30 blockade members have been arrested since August for chaining themselves to construction equipment and other actions. A smaller group is in the seventh week of an extended sit-in, perched in treehouses 80 feet above the ground near the pipeline's path.
"We feel like the opportunity to stop it legislatively has passed, the opportunity to stop it diplomatically has passed—so we fill in the void," said Ramsey Sprague, a spokesman for the Tar Sands Blockade.
Although Fairchild isn't a member of Sprague's group, she supports the action it is taking, especially now that the mainstream environmental organizations have "sort of stopped calling and stopped getting involved."
At least two of the organizations that once worked regularly with Texas landowners—the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council—say they can't directly support the Tar Sands Blockade's actions, because their bylaws prohibit them from participating in acts of civil disobedience.
"[As] an organization built on the rule of law…we're not endorsing the blockade and we're not engaged in that effort," said NRDC senior attorney Danielle Droitsch. She emphasized that her group shares the concerns of landowners along the route, and supports the Tar Sands Blockade's goals, if not its methods.
Sprague isn't surprised that some of the big green organizations are hanging back. The national groups seem "more or less resigned that the southern segment is a foregone conclusion, because it's already on its way," he said. But "there's a fight to be had here [in Texas], not just a fight to the north."
The blockade has received support from at least two national groups with fewer limits on direct action. Sprague said Greenpeace has provided "logistical support," and staff from the climate action network 350.org have given blockade members workshops on nonviolent protest.
"At 350.org we're incredibly happy to see this action underway in Texas," founder Bill McKibben said in an email. "[We] have been tweeting and emailing about it constantly; it's killing me that there's not one open day on my schedule between now and Thanksgiving so I can get down there and actually help in some more useful way."
Daniel Kessler, a 350.org spokesman, said the group "stand[s] arm in arm with those opposing the southern leg and will be featuring [t]heir voices" on a nationwide tour it launched last week to engage the public on climate action.
The blockade and 350.org are part of the Tar Sands Coalition, a collaboration of dozens of national and local groups opposed to the expansion of Canadian tar sands oil, or bitumen.
Tar sands production has a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil, and bitumen is so heavy that it must be diluted with liquid chemicals before it can flow through a pipeline. The resulting product, dilbit, is much harder to clean up than conventional oil when it spills into water.
Kate Colarulli of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign said the environmental movement continues to support the Texas effort in other ways. For instance, the Sierra Club is pursuing a lawsuit that challenges the water-crossing permits the Army Corps of Engineers issued for the project. "We're still financially engaged in Texas," she said "…but the work we're doing may not be as media newsworthy as what the blockade has done."