Part 1: Tree sitters have sparked tension in East Texas over Keystone XL
Part 2: When a multibillion-dollar pipeline runs through your backyard
Part 3: TransCanada’s massive effort to bring Keystone XL to the Texas Coast
WINNSBORO – Sitting in trees more than 40 feet above pipeline construction crews, two men have come up with an ultimatum.
“Until TransCanada can give me a legally binding document that they’re not going to cut any of these trees down, I’m not coming down from here,” said one of the men.
The problem, local residents say, is that the men are sitting in someone else’s trees.
For more than a month, a group calling itself Tar Sands Blockade has embarked on the most aggressive effort yet to stop work on the southern portion of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.
Protesters have locked themselves to heavy machinery, stood in front of working equipment and taken to the trees in a network of platforms, tarp and rope, hoping to prevent work on the $2.3 billion Oklahoma-Texas leg of a line eventually planned to link Canada with the Gulf Coast.
The Canadian pipeline company calls the protests “eco-terrorism,” but the situation has divided opinion enough among residents of this part of East Texas that even neighbors are wary of saying too much.
As truckloads of 80-foot pipe, busloads of workers and trailers carrying yellow machinery rumble past storefronts along the town’s two-block commercial strip, some residents have raised questions, others have voiced support and many have kept their peace.
“I can’t afford to get into it because one man’s for it and one man’s against it, and I need both of them,” said Bob Bright, the owner of Bob’s Garage in Winnsboro.
Except for a handful of property owners who object to the pipeline, most of the demonstrators have not been local, said Leslie Boorman, a Winnsboro resident who works at a computer repair shop in town. Both men in the trees said they are from outside of Texas.
“If you own the property and you feel that you have something against it, that’s fine,” she said. “But if you’re coming in from elsewhere, I just don’t think that’s proper.”
Bill Jones, who writes a historical column for the Winnsboro News, leans the same way. “I can see the good on one side and I can see the bad on the other, but I don’t think anything in life is worth a protest like that,” he said.
Most residents in surrounding Wood County know somebody who has worked in the oil business, which has rarely been a source of concern, Jones said.
Efforts to stop Keystone XL began over objections to the type of oil the pipeline will carry. Much of it will be produced from Canadian oil sands. Activists say oil sands crude has the potential to cause more environmental damage, if spilled, than other oil because it is has heavy components that can sink and be difficult to clean.
TransCanada disputes those criticisms, arguing that the oil is just as safe as any other heavy crude that moves through pipelines. Even without Keystone XL, crude from Canadian oil sands already flows through U.S. pipelines, making Canada the No. 1 source of oil imports to the country, TransCanada spokesman Jim Prescott said.
Although the company says the protesters are trespassing on its construction right of way, it gave the Houston Chronicle access to the area to speak with the tree sitters and observe the pipeline work.
‘You Shall Not Pass’
The men, identifying themselves by aliases saying they fear legal action by TransCanada, said they were comfortable surviving on canned food, books and often confrontational conversations with security workers standing about four stories below them.
They werethe holdouts of a group that once totaled nine tree protesters. The rest descended after TransCanada decided to shift its pipeline route around the group’s platforms and banners, one of which reads “You Shall Not Pass.”
That change in TransCanada’s plans left protesters scrambling to protect other trees as the company’s machinery roared through and quickly cleared a new path. Work is now progressing on that 100-foot-wide space – once a densely wooded area that now teems with pipe, equipment and men in hard hats.
TransCanada says it will plant trees along its easement and maintain new landscaping after the pipeline is installed.
Since it altered its route, the company has filed a civil lawsuit against dozens of protesters and others who have encouraged action to stop the pipeline, alleging that they have caused disruptions and changes that could cost more than $500,000. TransCanada also has alleged that if protests delay the overall project, it could cost the company millions of dollars.
While the protesters set out to stop the pipeline altogether, they acknowledged they had not succeeded and hoped to inspire more Keystone XL opposition as they focused on protecting specific trees.
“We’ve shown that TransCanada can move the pipeline off its path,” said one of the tree protesters, who called himself B. “We’re sure that TransCanada would like to cut these trees down if we left, but we’re not going to let that happen.”
The protesters, however, are on land owned by David Daniel, who initially asked for their help but has since reached a new agreement with TransCanada and informed the protesters that they are trespassing. Both men said they intend to continue their protest. Daniel could not be reached for comment.
“If this pipeline comes through, it will leak, it will poison the water and people’s lives will be at risk,” said the other tree protester, who called himself “Chickadee” and wore a bandana over his face as he spoke from a post oak.
TransCanada says its pipeline will be the safest ever built and will have spill monitoring systems that can accurately detect changes of pressure at dozens of locations along the Keystone XL southern leg, between Cushing, Okla., and the Texas coast.
Still, the debate over the pipeline has given pause to some residents, said Conrad Wolfman, who has lived in Winnsboro for seven years. Wolfman’s shop, Winnsboro Emporium, is filled with quirky wood carvings, glass work and paintings and books by local artists and authors. It benefits from tourists to local lakes and would suffer if a spill affected the area, he said.
While he has read material from those opposed to and supportive of the pipeline, many of his questions about how a spill would be cleaned up, or the type of oil that would move through Keystone XL, have not been answered by TransCanada or government officials, he said.
“We don’t know any of that stuff and I don’t know if it’s because they don’t know or they don’t want us to know,” Wolfman said.
Cutting trees ‘hurtful’
TransCanada’s Prescott said the company has been open about its plans to move oil sands crude, along with U.S. oil produced from shale, but contended that opponents of Keystone XL have obscured the facts.
Marilyn Arnaud, the owner of Winnsboro coffee shop Art & Espresso, said she’s troubled less about oil than about TransCanada’s clearing of land to make room for pipeline.
“To have anybody come through and just cut down all those trees, to me that’s hurtful,” Arnaud said.
That wasn’t a concern for Boorman, the computer store worker, who said the pipeline will create jobs and add to the domestic oil supply. As far as she’s concerned, there’s only one reasonable reaction:
“Dig, baby, dig.”