In Texas Pipeline Fight, People Step In as Green Groups Step Aside

Eleanor Fairchild, 78, is among more than 30 activists arrested since August for using nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the Keystone XL in Texas.

Landowner Eleanor Fairchild (right) and actress Daryl Hannah (left) were arreste
Landowner Eleanor Fairchild (right) and actress Daryl Hannah (left) were arrested Oct. 4 for blocking Keystone XL construction on Fairchild's land near Winnsboro, Texas. Credit: Steven DaSilva

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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 have given blockade members workshops on nonviolent protest.

“At 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 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 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.”

The Sierra Club lost its motion for a preliminary injunction in August and has appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver. “We’re not throwing in the towel,” said Sierra Club spokesman Eddie Scher. “We’re going to stop every one of these [pipelines].”

Supporting the Blockade

As the national groups have become less prominent in Texas, local residents are stepping in. Ron Seifert, another spokesman for the Tar Sands Blockade, said people have held benefit concerts in Houston and food drives in Austin, Nacogdoches and Dallas-Fort Worth. Stores in Wood County, where Fairchild lives, have given the protestors free coffee and eggs and discounted produce.

Kathy DaSilva, a retired teacher from Nacogdoches, said hundreds of volunteers are working behind the scenes. Some belong to environmental groups that don’t endorse civil disobedience, she said, so they are acting as individuals, not as representatives of their organizations.

DaSilva understands the dilemma some national groups face as they try to support the blockade’s goals without endorsing its actions. She said she appreciates what they’ve done to publicize the blockade through social media and is pleased with the letter of solidarity signed by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity and dozens of other groups.

Still, she wants the mainstream organizations to do more. “I think at this point we’re pretty much doing our own thing,” she said. “We still have hope, we’re still working hard, and it would be nice to have more support from the large groups.”

Many of those groups are calling for a major Keystone XL protest before the White House on Nov. 18. In an open letter posted last week, they urged their supporters to “resume the battle to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

The letter briefly mentions the southern leg, “where many of our colleagues are waging a remarkable fight against its construction,” but it doesn’t refer to the Tar Sands Blockade by name.

“It’s been a great source of frustration,” DaSilva said. “It’s almost like the attitude is, ‘Texas is a blow-off state because it’s an oil and gas [state].’ But when you talk to people [here], that image is not really accurate…If groups like the Sierra Club would come out a little stronger in favor of the nonviolent action, it would really help out.”

DaSilva said the national groups could also help by offering legal aid to Texas landowners who are fighting TransCanada—the company behind the Keystone XL—in court.

But Scher of the Sierra Club said his group has sunk its legal resources into the Army Corps lawsuit, and doesn’t have the resources for individual landowner cases.

DaSilva and her husband Steve are Sierra Club members who support the blockade “as private citizens…We’ve been at almost all of [the blockade’s] actions, not as participants but as documenters trying to keep everybody a little bit safer.”

They take photos and videos of blockade events, and run, a website for pipeline opponents in east Texas.

DaSilva has met blockaders and supporters of all backgrounds. Most are native Texans, she said, and some of those who risked arrest are in their 50s and 60s.

Fairchild began fighting the pipeline in early 2010, months before it became a flagship environmental cause. She sees the blockaders as individuals: the schoolteachers from Nacogdoches, the 60-year old grandmother, the “kids” fresh out of college who spent a night in her farmhouse.

They are not—as some critics have labeled them—”‘terrorists,'” she said. “They’re making a statement and hoping people will listen to what they’ll say.”

Fairchild never expected to become an activist. “I’m not a person who likes to be in the limelight,” she said. “I just pull my weeds and run my farm. But I decided I wouldn’t like myself if I didn’t do something about it, and I think it’s very important to like myself.”

Her main objection to the Keystone XL is the presence of dilbit. While the northern segment is the key link for bringing more dilbit into the United States, the southern leg will also transport some dilbit. TransCanada spokesman Grady Semmens said the company couldn’t provide specific figures, but said U.S. oil will account for “most” of the southern segment’s initial capacity of 700,000 barrels per day.

Fairchild isn’t against oil pipelines. Her husband Raymond was a petroleum geologist whose last job was senior vice president of international exploration at Hunt Oil. She said he focused on light, sweet crude from the Middle East and never worked with tar sands.

Raymond Fairchild passed away in March of 2009, just nine days after TransCanada first approached Eleanor Fairchild about passing the pipeline through their property. The company initially offered $42,000 for a six-acre easement. Fairchild said she needed time to think.

She was worried, she said, because TransCanada’s representatives told her the company wouldn’t replace the trees cut down during construction. A year later, when she brought up the issue at a Keystone XL public hearing, State Department officials said TransCanada was required to replant trees and grass.

“That made me mad that they lied to me,” she said. “And I started finding out [about] tar sands.”

TransCanada eventually raised its offer for her land to $60,000, but Fairchild refused to sign. The company then obtained the easement through eminent domain for $24,000, an amount Fairchild is contesting. Her check from TransCanada is still sitting in the courthouse.

According to StateImpact Texas, TransCanada has filed eminent domain claims for more than 100 of the 850 properties it needs in Texas. Many of those cases already have been settled.

For Fairchild, what began as concern for her property gradually grew into something much bigger.

“It’s about more than just my land…I decided this wasn’t good for the country,” she said. “We have a water shortage in Texas, and to take a chance of ruining our water—to me it’s just stupid.”

She got a harsh reminder of those risks in July 2010, when a ruptured pipeline spilled more than a million gallons of dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. More than two years later, that cleanup still isn’t complete. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered Enbridge Inc., the Canadian company responsible for the spill, to dredge oil from an addition 100 acres of the riverbed.

Another disappointment came in April 2011, when Fairchild and a neighbor traveled to Washington, D.C. to share their concerns with Texas senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison. “We had [scheduled] appointments, and we ended up sitting in their waiting rooms talking to [their] assistants…They just said they didn’t have time for us.”

Four months later, when the Tar Sands Coalition called for a massive demonstration in D.C., Fairchild was ready to risk arrest. She joined the sit-in outside the White House and was arrested the day after her 77th birthday.

Most of the 1,200 people arrested were landowners and citizen activists. The environmental groups that organized the sit-in also joined in: Colarulli and some of her Sierra Club colleagues took vacation days to get arrested. So did several NRDC staffers.

Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace, believes the event made some groups “less allergic” to the idea of civil disobedience. But he added that the White House demonstration was a low risk event compared to what the Tar Sands Blockade is doing now.

The protesters in Texas are actively preventing pipeline construction with their “blood, sweat and tears,” Davies said. “You don’t get to go home at 5 p.m. They are stopping an action at the source.”

Lawsuits and Media Attention

Although Fairchild didn’t know it at the time, she was arrested in D.C. on the same day as actress Daryl Hannah, who was also protesting the pipeline.

In October, Hannah flew to Texas to help the Tar Sands Blockade. She met with Fairchild, and on the spur of the moment the two women decided to walk in front of a construction vehicle on Fairchild’s land.

A Tar Sands Blockade video from that day shows Fairchild and Hannah jogging toward a bulldozer. They stand on the pipeline easement, arms raised, until the machine rolls to a stop.

Fairchild said the deputies who arrested her tried to talk her into leaving. They said, “‘We don’t want to arrest you.’ I said, ‘What’s going to happen to my friend?…If you don’t tell me what will happen to her, you’ll have to arrest me.'”

Both Fairchild and Hannah were arrested and released later that night. Their arrest, plus the detainment a week later of two New York Times journalists who were reporting on the tree sitters, gave the Tar Sands Blockade a surge of media attention.

“I just think it’s crazy you have to do some bizarre things to get attention,” Fairchild said.

Fairchild said she is now fighting for future generations, including her five great-grandchildren and a 14-year old granddaughter who is “very proud of me.”

“I’m old. I’m going to die in a few years, and that’s life—that’s a normal part of life,” she said. “But I’m concerned about what I and others have left on this earth for our grandkids.”

Fairchild said she’ll stay off the easement from now on, but she won’t stop talking to the media or protesting the pipeline while standing elsewhere on her land. “I’m not going to be squelched.”

Still, she has doubts about the protesters’ ability to stop the pipeline. “It’s just a matter of time and they’ll have to come out of those trees.”

TransCanada recently moved the pipeline’s path to circumvent the tree sitters. The company has also filed civil lawsuits against the Tar Sands Blockade and various individuals, including Fairchild, seeking to stop them from interfering with pipeline construction.

Seifert, the blockade spokesman, said lawyers have offered to represent the defendants pro bono.

“I’m not scared anymore,” Fairchild said. “Whatever happens to me…they can’t hurt me, you know what I mean? I’m standing up for what I think is right.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that environmental group Friends of the Earth is one of the organizations whose bylaws prohibit them from participating in acts of civil disobedience. The group has no such dictate. Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth-U.S., said, however, that the organization does not endorse “illegal action” during work hours and said that staff have helped the Tar Sands Blockade with web publicity.