The Keystone XL Pipeline’s ‘Accidental Activists’

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Michael Bishop flies three flags on his East Texas farm: a red US Marine Corps flag, the yellow Gadsden flag with a coiled snake that reads, “Don’t Tread On Me,” and a faded, red, white and blue Old Glory — the last of which hangs upside down. “Someone said this was disrespecting the American flag,” said Bishop. “But I read the US code to them. This is perfectly legal under federal law: It means my property is in distress.”

Michael Bishop displays one of the flags he flies upside down on his property in Douglass, Texas, because it's "in distress," he says. Photo: Tara Lohan.

Bishop, 65, a Marine veteran, former paramedic, chemist, biofuels producer and now a first-year medical school student, doesn’t back down from a fight. Right now he’s locked horns with TransCanada, the Canadian pipeline company that’s responsible for another set of flags on Bishop’s property — two ropes of colorful triangular ones strung between poles that look like they should be adorning a used car lot instead of a rural property. These, however, are the common markings of a pipeline route.

By eminent domain, TransCanada seized part of Bishop’s 20 acres near Nacogdoches for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the company insisted needed to be built right through his orchard and garden. Beyond the flags is the long gash in question, which in the rain and oozing red Texas mud looks like a gaping wound.

You’ve likely heard something of the controversy over the pipeline, which would carry a thick slurry of diluted bitumen (or dilbit) from Alberta’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries near Houston. Five years ago its construction was all but a done deal, only lacking the official nod from the Obama administration, necessary since the planned route crosses the US-Canada border.

Sierra Club Lifts 120-Year Ban on Civil Disobedience
But, that was before opposition became a rallying cry for an environmental movement intent on trying to keep one of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels in the ground. Groups such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org staged numerous protests in Washington, DC – including one that ended with more than 1,200 participants being hauled off to jail — propelling the issue to the front page of public discourse. Even the Sierra Club changed its 120 year-old policy against civil disobedience to join the fight.

While McKibben and friends took center stage in the capitol, local protests against the pipeline route emerged in the heartland. Pissed-off Nebraska farmers have given the administration pause. At a June 2013 speech at Georgetown University, Obama said that he would only approve the pipeline if it didn’t exacerbate climate pollution.

Pipeline opponents celebrated the speech as a hopeful sign that the project would never come to fruition. But Michael Bishop and other landowners across a 485-mile strip of Oklahoma and Texas had already had their dreams dashed and their land condemned, cleared and bulldozed. And that’s because the pipeline has a northern and a southern leg. Only the fate of the northern leg remains undecided. Just a year before his Georgetown speech, Obama stood in Cushing, Okla., in front of a pile of pipeline and said, “The southern leg of it, we’re making a priority.”

Flags marking the Keystone XL pipeline on Michael Bishop's property in Douglass, Texas. Photo: Tara Lohan.

Cushing itself is not much to look at: Its downtown is like a ghost town, with vacant storefronts and boarded-up windows — a far cry from its days as a bustling oil refinery center. But the town still boasts of being the “pipeline crossroads of the world.” It already hosts a terminus of the Keystone pipeline — the elder sibling of sorts to the Keystone XL, which was completed in 2011. Obama fast-tracked the southern leg of Keystone XL to help move crude out of Cushing and toward the Gulf, where it can be refined and perhaps exported.

For Julia Trigg Crawford, Obama’s decision felt like being thrown under the bus. “It’s almost like they built this thing in Texas and Oklahoma under the cover of darkness,” said Crawford, who manages her family’s 650-acre farm near Paris, Texas.

The Keystone XL’s southern leg officially opens today. Soon, 700,000 barrels of oil will be pulsing underneath Crawford’s land each day, potentially increasing to 830,000 barrels a day in the future. As for its soundness, TransCanada’s track record doesn’t put Crawford at ease. A report by consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen found that during construction of the southern leg, “landowners and observers documented dozens of anomalies and problems apparently caused by TransCanada contractors not following the mandated engineering code.”

“It’s almost like they built this thing in Texas and Oklahoma under the cover of darkness,” said Crawford
The Red River hugging a boundary of Crawford’s farm is a reminder that water is a precious resource in Texas. The southern leg crosses 631 rivers and streams in the Lone Star State alone. Contamination is possible; pipeline spills aren’t a far-fetched notion. The Keystone pipeline had 12 spills in its inaugural year. Crawford doesn’t think TransCanada has been forthcoming about what the Keystone XL will be carrying — which will be mostly dilbit. “When they condemned our land, it said the pipeline would be for ‘crude petroleum.’ Well, this is not crude petroleum,” she said. “You better tell the first responders how to handle this stuff. You better tell families it sinks in water, it’s not your everyday crude.”

Residents of Mayflower, Ark., found that out the hard way last year when their suburban neighborhood was inked with 200,000 gallons of toxic black goo from a broken dilbit pipeline. It was also a lesson that schooled Marshall, Mich., in 2010 when close to a million gallons of dilbit spilled into the Kalamazoo River from a fractured pipeline. Years later, the river and the community still haven’t fully recovered.

Crawford doesn’t want to see Texas and Oklahoma added to the list of sacrificed areas. “Why is the northern leg something we need to think a little bit more about but not the southern leg?” she asked. “Why are there two standards? The same material that’s coming through the northern leg will be coming through the southern leg.” And why, for that matter, is the president concerned about the impact of the project on climate change from one half of the pipeline but not the other?

Like Bishop’s, part of Crawford’s family farm was taken by eminent domain for construction of the pipeline after her family refused to sign a deal with the company. You’d think a foreign corporation trying to seize property from Texas farmers would be in for a tough fight, since the state prides itself on private property rights — but seizure is actually a cinch. TransCanada just has to check a box on a form to the Texas Railroad Commission (the state body regulating pipelines) affirming that it is a “common carrier” (which means that other companies can use the pipeline “for hire,” so it’s theoretically for the public good).

A Keystone XL worker takes photos of Julia Trigg Crawford while she walks on her farm. Photo: Tara Lohan.

If a landowner wants to challenge the designation of ‘common carrier,’ he or she must be willing to shell out big bucks and face off against a major multinational in court. It’s costly, and there’s no assurance of victory. But, like Bishop, Crawford is not one to back down from a fight. “We don’t think someone should have more of a right to our land than we do,” said Crawford. “Also this farm houses a very well-recognized Caddo Indian burial site. So we are protecting the artifacts, protecting our water and standing up for our rights.”

With a legal defense fund spurred by donations, Crawford put up her dukes. And for that, she’s been treated like a criminal. She’s photographed and filmed by industry folks when she’s walking on her own land, and the pipeline on her property is staffed with security around the clock — most of whom are off-duty local law enforcement.

Crawford has faced it all with civility and a steely determination. Right now she’s on pins and needles, hoping the Texas Supreme Court will agree to hear her case against TransCanada, which has shuffled up the legal pathways of her state for the last few years.

You’d think a foreign corporation trying to seize property from Texas farmers would be in for a tough fight, since the state prides itself on private property rights — but seizure is actually a cinch.

She and Bishop (who is representing himself in lawsuits against the company and the Army Corps of Engineers over the pipeline) were given hope by a recent decision made by the Texas Supreme Court. In Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, the court ruled that private property is constitutionally protected, and “a private enterprise cannot acquire condemnation power merely by checking boxes on a one-page form.” The Denbury decision however, was about a natural gas pipeline, and not the Keystone XL.

To say that their fight is one of David vs. Goliath would be an understatement. The deck has been stacked against them from the start, and the interests at stake go well beyond just TransCanada. Review of the northern section of the pipeline, the fate of which remains up in the air, has been mired in controversy. For starters, TransCanada’s director of government relations, Paul Elliot, was also the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run for president. And Clinton was heading the State Department when the agency began reviewing the pipeline’s environmental impact.

The draft environmental impact statement that the State Department reviewed was not done by the agency itself but by a contractor, Environmental Resources Management, and paid for by TransCanada itself. Contractors who worked on the statement also worked on previous TransCanada pipelines as well as for companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Koch Gateway Pipeline Company — all of whom could benefit from the project. It was later found that the State Department intentionally kept the public in the dark about the connections. To make matters worse, Environmental Resources Management is listed as a member of industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, Western Energy Alliance, and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. Conflict of interest?

Besides the obvious advantages to TransCanada, Koch Industries may also win big from the project. As the second-largest private company in the country, it’s a heavy hitter. The Kochs claim they don’t have any connection with the pipeline but, “Koch Industries has touched virtually every aspect of the tar sands industry since the company established a toehold in Canada more than 50 years ago,” wrote David Sassoon for Inside Climate News. “It has been involved in mining bitumen, the hydrocarbon resin found in the oil sands; in pipeline systems to collect and transport Canadian crude; in exporting the heavy oils to the US; in refining the sulfurous, low-grade feedstock and in the subsequent distribution and sale of a variety of finished products from jet fuel to asphalt.”

“I’ve never been an activist — but I am now — an accidental activist,” said Crawford.
The Kochs have padded the pockets of everyone from politicians to AstroTurf groups who can help stymie action on climate change and keep greasing the wheels of the fossil fuel industry – including hastening approval of Keystone XL. To that end, Koch Industries has spent well over $24 million on traceable campaign donations since 1990, and almost four times that amount—about $82 million – on their lobbying expenditures since 1998 alone, according to Open Secrets. And that figure doesn’t include the vast sums of dark money pushed through their web of outside groups.

Dark money is increasingly becoming the name of the game. A studyby Robert J. Brulle at Drexel University found that right-wing organizations, such as those supported by the Kochs to counter climate change action, are increasingly using “donor directed philanthropies” such as Donors Trust and Donor Capital to cover their tracks because such donations don’t need to be made public. “In effect, these two philanthropic foundations form a black box that conceals the identity of contributors,” writes Brulle. The use of such foundations for anonymous giving is on the rise: Donors Trust doled out $1.2 million in 2002 to conservative causes and increased its offerings to $63 million by 2010.

Julia Trigg Crawford and Buffalo Bill Cody, the photographer's dog. Photo: Tara Lohan.

Whether it’s coming from the Kochs or someone else, big money is invested in enabling the fossil fuel kings to remain on their thrones. Stopping TransCanada will be virtually impossible for Crawford and Bishop, but that doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying.

Every day that her court case remains alive is a day Crawford says she can help continue the conversation about the risks that her community, and others along the pipeline, may face. “I have very little hope we are going to win — we’re outmanned, outfinanced,” said Crawford. “But there is this groundswell of people saying that until someone stands up nothing is going to change. We’re staying in the game even though it’s a long shot. We’re shining a light on it for some discussion.

“I’ve never been an activist — but I am now — an accidental activist,” said Crawford. “I never really rocked the boat — first-born, Girl Scout, cheerleader. I never really got in trouble until now. It’s like sometimes you have to color outside the lines a bit.”

TransCanada drew its line in the red dirt. And Crawford has drawn hers. Win or lose, a powerful force has awoken in Texas.

Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, runs the multimedia project Hitting Home chronicling extreme energy extraction. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, most recently, Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
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  • Harry Leslie

    Where’s the map?

  • Anonymous

    The scary part of this story isn’t just the pipeline, which is scary enough, but that it makes clear that we only think we own the land on which we live. If the government decides that they want it, even to allow it to be used by a private corporation, you are screwed. In the back of my head I always knew this, but this brings it out in the open. It is a disgusting abuse of power and a complete violation of the principles of freedom on which this country was supposedly founded.

  • Anonymous

    Michael Bishop , you are an American hero.

    No foreign corporation should be allowed to claim US land as if it serves the US, when in fact this pipeline will transport the dirtiest fossil oil, from a foreign source, to refineries in the Gulf that will export the refined product to foreign nations.

    And since these Canadian ‘bitumen’ are not recognized as “oil” by Congress and the IRS, TransCanada does not even need to pay into the National Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

    In other words, US tax payers or domestic oil production companies using domestic pipelines may end up paying for leaks of the Keystone XL, or else the spill won’t get cleaned up.

    Reminds me of the failure of Enbridge to clean up their ‘bitumen’ spill into the Kalamazoo river, and the Kalamazoo river still being heavily polluted, with Enbridge in violation of various EPA cleanup requests, now 5 years and still on-going.

  • JonThomas

    A few things…

    One, Mr. Bishop, and every other property owner affected, it is not I who sees your lands as something this nation needs. I think there are many, MANY more who would like to tell you that. I am very sorry that they are acting in the name of The People. It is a sad day to see a business interest claim to be acting in a nation’s interest and claim land.

    Two, I am generally against the fossil fuel industry. They are certainly NOT operating at my desire… However, if they are wanting to make use of that tar oil, instead of building a pipeline to move the oil, I’d rather Canada invest in refining. Let them make the products and the profits.

    Three, before some paid industry apologist comes on this thread and attacks those of us who are anti-pipeline… No, I don’t own a car. Yes, I am careful about reducing.

  • Michelle

    It is very admirable for the Crawford’s to protect the Caddo Indian artifacts that reside on Caddo Indian land… though, for true justice to be realized, the Caddo Indians would have jurisdiction of the land, not the Crawfords (unless they are descendants), or the U.S. government or the transnational corporations. I fight your fight…just trying to keep other related struggles in perspectives…Injustice begets injustice, begets injustice…

    In solidarity,
    Michelle B.

  • Thomas Amnesia

    J.T. Crawford: Buy a Canon PowerShot XS50HS camera – it has a zoom lens that makes things look 50 times closer for under $400 – and start taking pictures of THEM. Then file civil suits for harassment, invasion of privacy, and bullying. They can take your picture in public, but not while you’re on your own property. While perfectly legal, the police HATE having their pictures taken and is big fun!!! You and folks like you are the only true Americans in this story. Be proud because there are millions that are proud of you.

  • James A. Moyers

    My grandparents Moyers in my East Tennessee “Old Country” sold their farm for a fair and just price to the TVA in order to make way for Norris Lake. I consider that in the name of progress. Likewise, I consider the Keystone XL Pipeline in the name of progress. In the East Texas that I was reared, those folks were paid a fair and just compensation for their land to make way for the pipeline.

  • Anonymous

    Since TransCanada already has its “northern leg”, using its existing pipeline that skirts the Ogallala aquifer, a far more precious resource than tar sands, why doesn’t it just forget about ruining a major water source for the nation? After all, the pipeline will leak and will pollute the aquifer if built, since these folk do not understand entropy and eschew maintenance.

  • Anonymous

    Except,the people do not have an equal voice in this pipe line fight. It is money that is talking. We the people are no longer created equal as our constitution promised. Since money is speech there is no way we are equal to all that money that is taking our land and environment and life. How many tea party people that say their freedoms have been taken from them really know they have been bought by the Koch industries who really have taken our freedom. We are surfs of industry. Good luck Crawford I send all the best vibes for your fight.

  • Celui

    This Keystone XL debacle underscores the very destructive effects of ‘Citizens United’ ruling by SCOTUS. That big money with its bottomless pockets should be able to dictate public policy and public use is deplorable. When the northern leg of this disaster is finally approved, the ‘job creators’ will rise up and proclaim anew their superiority. Can it be agreed that most elected politicians have a price?

  • Jim

    If this country would put as much importance on building pipelines to move water around as it does oil and gas, we could limit damage from droughts and floods to a great degree. Of course the profit potential isn’t near as obvious but it would save money on insurance claims, loss of life, crop damages, and a leak in the line wouldn’t be such a major environmental issue as it is with oil and gas. And think how many jobs would be created if the states that experience perennial flooding and the ones that are in dire need of water would throw their combined influence behind these projects.

  • Dave Brown

    SecularHumanist; I don’t think its the government that is taking the land. Its TransCanada law suits that are taking the land.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, what a surprise, the Kochs have their filthy hands in yet another environmental disaster, because filthy rich is never rich enough.

  • Anonymous

    Can we set up a fund for that camera?
    Photograph them, time stamp the photos and bring them to court. Harassment, stalking, invasion of privacy. A person should have a right to privacy on his/her own property.
    Godspeed!

  • Jim

    Doesn’t anyone question why there is so much pressure to build this one pipeline from another country through our country? It seems like our own politicians just can’t wait to betray their own citizens.

  • Anonymous

    What I’d do is route it down through Boehnor’s district in Ohio, and down into Kentucky crossing the entire state going West and a straight shot hook-up in Oklahoma. All states that could give a crap about clean water. They’re happy, we’re happy.

  • Nimmi

    For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

  • Carol

    And a break in a line which would take some time to repair would not create an environmental catastrophe.

  • Doug Russell

    The difference in the case of the TVA project…the local people benefit from the new lake as opposed to the Keystone pipeline, where Transamerica, Koch Industries and China are the beneficiaries, not Americans

  • Anonymous

    I once read that “you can’t argue with idiots” so I have no intent on doing so, you’re not worth it. Most of you are just too brilliant for this ole southwestern redneck so I’ll use simplistic methods to express my points. None of you recognize the significance to fossil fuels or the impact that it has within your lives, if this applies it tells us you are on the welfare role. The entire economy, your lifeline, is dependent on fossil fuels and the oil companies ability to refine them. It is far better that we get this oil from friendlies than those who might once again hijack a plane, Bill Moyer will not point that out to you, they rely upon emotion and not fact.
    Some of you pointed to some 10 leaks, by the way were detected and repaired, but never mentioned that we have hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines throughout our country but we had 10 repaired leaks. Instead of what might happen, tell us about all that water that was polluted, come up with a stronger argument.
    I’m tired of making the argument to the brilliant fools and revert back to that initial statement, “you can’t argue with idiots” and this ole redneck will leave you with one question that at least one of you brilliant fools can answer, “HOW AND WHAT IN THE HELL ARE YOU GOING TO EAT.” Dazzle me with some of your brilliance and not baffle me with any of your BS.

  • EarthCare13

    The pipeline is an ecological disaster waiting to happen. There have already been numerous sizable leaks the Canadian company has not assisted in cleaning up. Allowing the pipeline to proceed is putting greed and money and profit over common sense – and over the welfare of America and future generations of Americans. The pipeline is nothing short of foreign corporation supplanting the will and rights and land ownership of Americans, and the pipeline is displacing people, ruining land and waterways, and eliminating farms and jobs. Moreover, the pipeline is due to enter the sovereign territory of the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation and destroy forever the sacred tribal sun dance area in the Red Shirt Table area. The concept of ‘sovereignty’ is that the TRIBE decides – not individuals, not non-tribal members, and certainly not foreign companies. When the inevitable leaks occur, the only water source for thousands of indigenous peoples already displaced once will be destroyed forever. Is it not enough that their native land was already stolen; that the reservation is a food desert; that unemployment is over 90%; that people are freezing and starving and that children are dying there because the U.S. government has broken every promise made to these and other first peoples? AND that the government and multiple companies have stolen minerals and other natural resources for years? Already the big rigs are using the reservation as a shortcut, and leaving litter and pollution in their wake. The big rig drivers aren’t stopped or arrested – the native inhabitants are! The people have no rights even on what is supposed to be their own sovereign territory. And by the way, if this catastrophe is allowed to proceed, who will dig up and remove the pipes once the finite supply of oil runs out? Because it WILL run out. There are other sources of energy that are free for the utilization – tap into them instead of destroying the land, waterways, farms, livelihoods, native reservations and tribal lands, and the futures of Americans. It is short-sighted to continue with the pipeline. And it would be wise, with both the pipeline and with fracking, to remember that: “We have but one planet, and there is no spare.” Think long-term, and of your children and grandchildren. We are supposed to be care-takers of the earth, not its destroyers.