Keystone XL Tree Protesters Call It Quits After Pipeline Rerouted Around Them

Activists say their tree blockade may soon be over as construction on the Texas property wraps up. But their efforts to stop the pipeline are not.

Protester perched at the top of an 80-foot tree in a patch of old-growth forest
Protester perched at the top of an 80-foot tree in a patch of old-growth forest in East Texas where the Keystone XL was expected to cross, Nov. 2012. Credit: Tar Sands Blockade

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Activists who had hoped to block the southern leg of the Keystone XL in Texas by occupying trees in the pipeline’s path are ending their three-month protest after construction was rerouted around them.

TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder, acquired an easement in October to build the pipeline slightly west of the tree blockade and the original route. Construction is now nearly finished on the property, and the protesters will soon call it quits.

“It’s a sad time at the tree blockade,” said Ron Seifert, a spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, the activist group behind the campaign. Seifert said it’s probably days before the tree village decamps, though no official decision has been made. “We’ll take it day by day.”

Since late September, dozens of people have been living in 80-foot tree houses or camping below on a piece of property the size of one and a half football fields in Winnsboro, East Texas.

The blockade and related protests across Texas have resulted in 50-some arrests and several legal disputes since construction began on the Keystone XL, designed to carry oil from Cushing, Okla. to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The pipeline would eventually transport heavy diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from the oil sands of Canada.

Roughly one-quarter of the 485-mile pipeline is installed, TransCanada spokesperson David Dodson told InsideClimate News.

Protesters’ chief complaint is that a spill on the Keystone XL would ravage farmland, irrigation systems, waterways and other fragile ecosystems. They also fear that refining the heavy oil the pipeline would carry would increase global warming and air pollution.

In recent weeks, construction near the encampment stopped, giving activists temporary hope, Seifert told InsideClimate News.

“As we speak, the pipeline is being trenched around the western end of the blockaded area,” he added with disappointment. The “blockade will essentially become symbolic and come to an end.”

Dodson of TransCanada confirmed that construction is “substantially complete” on the property, which is owned by David Daniel, a longtime opponent of the Keystone XL. Daniel reached an easement agreement with TransCanada in 2010, but later told the company it could no longer come on his property. TransCanada responded with a lawsuit; the two parties have since settled litigation.

In October, TransCanada obtained a supplemental easement from Daniel to dig up a 75-foot-wide corridor adjacent to the tree village. 

Even though the tree sit is coming down, Seifert said it has been “a uniting force” for anti-pipeline activists across the country and “showed us that [TransCanada] can very easily change the route.”

The group is currently planning its largest demonstration yet for Jan. 7 somewhere in Texas. It also plans to increase its presence in Oklahoma, where construction is also underway.

TransCanada, meanwhile, is trying to obtain permanent injunctions against protesters in Wood County, where Winnsboro is located. Court orders would prohibit activists from interfering with pipeline construction. A temporary restraining order is in effect until a hearing takes place on Jan. 4, Dodson said. The company is pursuing a similar process in neighboring Franklin County.

3 Protesters Still in Jail

The biggest of the group’s 12 protests happened on Nov. 20 at two Keystone XL sites in Nacogdoches, 115 miles south of Winnsboro.

One hundred and twenty people rallied there, briefly halting construction and joining 40 related protests worldwide that week. Of the 11 activists arrested, four people locked themselves to machinery and three climbed trees in the pipeline’s path. Seifert said his group helped raise nearly $14,000 to help release everyone from jail before Thanksgiving.

Three other protestors remain in prison following a separate action in Winona, about an hour’s drive from the tree encampment.

In the early morning on Dec. 3, Matt Almonte and Glen Collins pushed a 600-pound concrete barrel in an unfinished section of pipeline three feet in diameter. Almonte crawled in and chained his arm to the barrel as Collins followed behind him. Other activists helped push a second concrete barrel into the pipe sealing in the two men, who wore gas masks in case police sprayed them with pepper spray or tear gas. A third protestor joined the two inside the pipeline.

It took police four hours to extract the concrete barrels and the protestors. The trio was charged with criminal trespassing, resisting arrest and illegally dumping the barrels—misdemeanors that usually carry a maximum penalty of $4,000 each, according to the Texas penal code.

Bail was set at $65,000 a person—though the activists only have to pay $6,500 in bail bonds plus jail fees.

Seifert said the Tar Sands Blockade is hoping to get a bail-reduction hearing this week and get the activists out soon, ideally before the Christmas holiday.

He explained that raising the money has been a challenge, in part because the group doesn’t have any big donors. National environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council previously told InsideClimate News they can’t directly support the Tar Sands Blockade because their bylaws prohibit them from taking part in acts of civil disobedience.

“We depend on everyday people making $5, $10, $15 contributions. You can only go to those folks so much,” Seifert said. “It’s no secret that a small grassroots organization like this will have fundraising issues.”

Lawsuit Over Dilbit

Anti-pipeline activists are waging legal battles as well, and one could land a victory on Wednesday.

Michael Bishop, a 64-year-old landowner who isn’t part of the Tar Sands Blockade, filed a lawsuit against TransCanada accusing the firm of lying to him and other landowners about the type of oil the Keystone XL would carry.

According to Bishop, the company said the pipeline would transport crude oil but didn’t specify that it would eventually carry dilbit, a blend of heavy tar sands crude diluted with liquid chemicals. Dilbit is much harder to clean up than conventional oil when it spills into water.

Bishop signed an easement agreement allowing TransCanada to build the pipeline on his 20-acre property in Douglass, 160 miles north of Houston. In an interview, he said he made the deal under “duress and coercion” after TransCanada threatened to condemn his property.  He said the pipeline would cross land that he’s leasing to an alternative fuels firm and “effectively shut down” plans to harvest grasses and refine them into biodiesel on the property.

TransCanada has denied claims of coercing property owners. The company “always treats landowners with respect,” Dodson previously told InsideClimate News.

On Dec. 11, a county judge issued a temporary restraining order against TransCanada to stop building on Bishop’s land. The next morning the judge vacated his decision, allowing the company to press ahead.

On Wednesday, the judge will decide whether to issue a temporary injunction against TransCanada, which would keep the pipeline company off Bishop’s land until the lawsuit is resolved over months.

Dodson said Bishop and his attorney knew what type of oil the pipeline would carry when he signed the agreement and accepted payment for his land. He explained that the southern portion would deliver mostly conventional, domestic oil when it opens in late 2013—and that “there’s a high probability” that the northern segment, which would start in Alberta, would transport heavy Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast.

The northern leg still needs approval from the State Department because it crosses an international border. The two segments would connect via an existing pipeline that runs from Nebraska to Oklahoma.

Bishop said the ordeal is “a little overwhelming” because he’s representing himself and he isn’t a lawyer.

“It’s David and Goliath, and I’m not afraid of them.”

Bishop filed a separate, related suit against the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that oversees pipelines. He claims the commission approved the pipeline on false grounds that it would only carry conventional crude. At a hearing this week, Bishop was told to refile his suit if he wants to proceed because he hadn’t followed proper legal procedure.

Ramsey Sprague, a Texas native and another spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, said Bishop “speaks to the heart of what a lot of Texas landowners are going through right now.”

“We support him and his lawsuit, and his voice is a powerful one.”