When the historic Tar Sands Blockade tree-sit in Winnsboro, Texas, began making headlines after it launched in September of 2012, it came as a surprise for many who never thought such an action would happen in rural East Texas.
The tree-sit lasted for more than two months and eventually resulted in TransCanada rerouting the pipeline around the tree blockade.
Now a new film documents how the tree-sit came into being and the landowner who started it all by constructing the very first tree platform. Above All Else will look at East Texas landowner David Daniel’s struggle against the pipeline, how he united landowners living along the pipeline route and how he helped spark the direct action movement taking shape along the pipeline’s southern leg.
Producers include Daryl Hannah and Julia Butterfly Hill, and the film was recently selected as a “staff pick” on Kickstarter.
Truthout spoke with filmmaker John Fiege, who is just beginning post-production on the film. He is based in Austin, Texas, and his films have played at the Cannes Film Festival, Miami International Film Festival and Austin Film Festival, among other venues.
Q. Who is David Daniel and why did you decide to make him the focus of your film?
A. David Daniel is a carpenter, a former stunt man, a gymnast, a father, a husband, and he moved to an isolated, wooded spot in East Texas about five years ago looking for peace and quiet and a beautiful place to build a home. Survey stakes appeared on his land that indicated the Keystone XL pipeline was going to be coming through, and that’s the first time he had ever heard of this project. He had never heard of tar sands or this pipeline before. He was worried about what impact the pipeline would have on his land and his family and his young daughter, who’s going to grow up on this land, and he decided to look into what he could do to stop this pipeline from coming through his land.
I found out about David a little over a year ago as he had been fairly active in the opposition to the pipeline, getting on the internet and posting some videos and working with some of the environmental groups on some of their protests against the pipeline. So when I started looking for folks in East Texas who were fighting back, David was really at the forefront of that effort.
He’s this remarkable kind of gentle, articulate, courageous, sincere person who had an unbelievable effect on the people around him to bring people into the fight and to stand with him in what he was doing. That’s how he became the center of the story. He didn’t start as the center of the story, but he really became the epicenter as we realized that so much of the opposition in East Texas to the pipeline stemmed from him and his original organizing efforts and stances.
Q. Can you talk about the issue of eminent domain in Texas? How has the process affected the landowners you spotlight in Above All Else?
A. One of the interesting things we’ve seen in making this film is the realities of what Texans are dealing with when they either oppose the Keystone XL pipeline or even begin to try to negotiate with [TransCanada]. What’s become very apparent is that we have a system that is completely weighted toward industry, and it makes it extremely easy for industry to build a pipeline for whatever reason. One of the really interesting things about the story that we documented is how when individuals decide to take a stand against the Keystone XL pipeline, how it has these amazing ripple effects, and all of a sudden a spotlight was shone on the process these oil companies can use to take land to build a pipeline despite potential opposition.
In Texas, all a company has to do to get the power of eminent domain is to check a box on a form from the Railroad Commission that declares that they are a “common carrier” of whatever is going through their pipeline, and to obtain that status, you only need to provide 10 percent oil from other companies and all of a sudden you’re declared a “common carrier.” . . . The current system doesn’t require any review. No one evaluates the form unless it’s challenged by a landowner, which is extremely costly and difficult. There’s some legislation right now in Austin that seeks to change that process in terms of review and the ability of landowners to question the validity of a common carrier claim by a company.
What we’ve seen in making this film is how the stand that some of the people in our film have taken against the Keystone XL pipeline has really shone a light on this system and encouraged new bills to come into the legislature that would reform this process.
Q. Julia Trigg Crawford is another landowner you spotlight in Above All Else. What is the significance of Julia Trigg Crawford’s legal case in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline?
A. One of the interesting things about Julia Crawford’s case is it shows what happens when an individual does decide to fight a big oil company. The main recourse a landowner currently has if they don’t want a pipeline to go through their property is to sue a company and say they don’t have a right to claim common carrier status and that they don’t have the right of eminent domain because their project is not for the common good. This is what Julia Trigg Crawford has done, and she has taken her case to the courts, and what we’ve seen is that despite her strong case and despite the enormous support she has received for her case, TransCanada is still able to move forward and build the pipeline on her land while her case is still in court.
So regardless of whether she wins or loses, there’s going to be a pipeline on her land, and theoretically, if she wins, she could force them to pull the pipeline out of the ground, but they have been able to move forward, putting the pipe in the ground before the lawsuit is complete. So if your only option as a landowner is to go to court, and if you do go to court and take it to its logical extreme and raise the money and the support that it takes to fight a legal battle like that, it takes so long to go through the courts that the companies are still able to go through and build the pipeline on your land, so it’s a really illogical system that we have for evaluating the validity of a pipeline project in Texas, and Julia Trigg Crawford’s case shows a lot of the weaknesses of our current system.
Q. Who are the other landowners you highlight in the forthcoming documentary?
A. Eleanor Fairchild is a 78-year-old grandmother whose husband worked in the oil business for 50 years, started as a geologist and became an oil executive. Eleanor has become one of the most surprising, strong, oppositional voices to the pipeline who has emerged in East Texas. It’s been really interesting to film her story over more than a year where we’ve seen her transform and to see how she’s started to realize the details of how this pipeline project is being built and the significance of tar sands development. She’s really become a strong voice for civil disobedience and opposition at a very late stage in her life. She’s one of the people who’s been really dramatically influenced and inspired by David Daniel.
What’s really interesting about the landowners fighting the pipeline in East Texas is that they do not fit any stereotypes whatsoever of what you would imagine of people fighting for an environmental cause. Susan Scott is the epitome of the East Texas farmer who is against tar sands and against the Keystone XL pipeline. She’s got a shooting range on her land. She’s got the sharpest, most colorful Texas wit I’ve ever heard in my life. She’s one of the most good-hearted, generous and humorous people I’ve ever met. This is the first time she’s ever been involved in any kind of protest like this. She carries a gun on her hip, and she’s just a trip.
Q. Can you talk about the Tar Sands Blockade and what you saw of the young people who are involved, that were allying with David, and all of the landowners who are fighting the pipeline?
A. What we’ve seen in making this film is that when someone decides to take a stand for what they believe in and decides to not back down and oppose an oil project, is that that stance has amazing ripple effects. In the case of David Daniel, he was planning to do a tree-sit on his land to physically stop the pipeline, and what happened in conjunction with that stance that he took was that he attracted students and activists from Texas and eventually around the country to come stand with him. Out of that action emerged this new coalition called the Tar Sands Blockade.
This idea that there’s something you can do; there’s an action that you can take to resist the system that we have and resist the construction of the pipeline that you believe is wrong, that that act of resistance attracted so many people. We saw over the summer of 2012 all these people from all over the country come to East Texas attracted to what was going on there, to start to use direct action, civil disobedience to really force a confrontation with the pipeline company and to really shine a light on all the issues and all the details of how this pipeline was being built in Texas and the repercussions for this project to be built.
Q. What are you mainly trying to capture in Above All Else?
A. Well, when you’re concerned about issues as broad as climate change and social change, it’s really difficult often to figure out how to enter that conversation. As a filmmaker, I was really looking for an opportunity to engage directly with this question of, “What can an individual do?” When you want to change society, when you want to change the world, when you want to deal with climate change, when you want to protect your family from a threat that you’re concerned about, and that’s how I found the main characters in the film.
I found folks who decided to stand up for what they believe. The film chronicles what happened to them. It chronicles who they are, the situation they’re in, what they decided to do and then what happened once they set out on their journey. I think what their stories show is that despite how overwhelming and abstract the issues like climate change are, an individual really can have a big impact. What we’ve seen in making this film is how individual actions have really profound direct influences on the people around them. It changes the community and it changes laws eventually. We really chronicled how change ripples through a community.
But on the flip side of that is, I think, we’ve seen very clearly how individual actions are insufficient and despite the dramatic impact that an individual can have on a community, social movements are required, and coordinated efforts of many people standing with one another and working together are required to really make change happen over time. It’s this kind of dueling ideas of the power of an individual and the insufficiency of an individual action that we’re seeing happening in the film. That’s really at the heart of the story we’re telling.
(Full disclosure: Candice Bernd is a fellow at Truthout and was involved in the Tar Sands Blockade during the time of the tree-sit. John Fiege has shot footage of her during the documentary’s initial production stage. She may or may not appear in “Above All Else.”)