One of the only remaining spaces keeping TransCanada from connecting a series of pipelines that would send tar sands crude from their source in Canada to refineries along the Gulf coast is Julia Trigg Crawford’s fields of corn and wheat in Direct, Texas.
Crawford is a woman who stands tall, much like the squeaky old windmill that sits atop a hill on the 600-acre farm her grandfather first bought in 1948. While the Crawford family has been able to keep many pipelines at bay in the past, TransCanada, the company behind the notorious Keystone XL pipeline project, threatened her with imposition of eminent domain if she refused to allow an easement across her land for an offer of $21,626.
Now, orange fencing creates the border between what was once her pasture but is now TransCanada’s easement for the southern leg of Keystone XL. Just across from the field, trenches have been dug and sections of pipe are laid out and ready — despite the fact that Crawford’s case is still going through the appellate process.
“Mine represents, to my knowledge, the last linkage that hasn’t happened, and it’s pretty daunting that that’s what we represent,” Crawford told Truthout.
More than two-thirds of the Keystone XL pipeline’s southern leg has been constructed across Oklahoma and Texas, despite constant disruptions from groups like the Tar Sands Blockade and the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance. The pipeline’s completion is expected by the middle of this year. (Full disclosure: I have organized with the Tar Sands Blockade.)
But while many environmental activists and organizations have been focusing on the project’s northern, cross-border portion, the damage of increased tar sands production will inevitably occur when work crews with TransCanada’s subcontractor, Michel’s, finish the job at Crawford’s farm.
“It’s very disingenuous for the big national environmental groups to be claiming that the battle still has to be fought and the question is still out there, the decision hasn’t been made, when clearly it’s been made,” toxicologist and author Dr. Riki Ott told Truthout. “It’s sort of like a smokescreen because … [the pipeline] is being built; it’s just been decoupled like a train and the last car is being built and all they have to do is slam the rest of the train in there and connect that last car, and their pipeline is done, ready to go.”
Dr. Ott was one of the first people on the scene during the Exxon Valdez oil spill after millions of gallons of crude oil were spilled into the waters surrounding Prince William Sound in Alaska. She helped organize a two-day fishermen’s blockade of the Valdez Narrows in which 60 boats protested the spill cleanup and prevented oil tankers from reaching the Trans-Alaska Pipeline terminal to draw attention to record low returns of pink salmon in Prince William Sound.
And she has a point. The southern leg of the pipeline, which runs from Cushing, Oklahoma, to Nederland, Texas, is the third phase of not just one potential pipeline but of a system of pipelines that is too easily misunderstood in the media.
The Keystone system’s first phase began with the original Keystone I pipeline, which runs from Alberta, Canada, and makes a stop in Steele City, Nebraska, before turning and heading east to Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline was finished in June of 2010, and has since spilled more than 35 times. Shortly after completion of Keystone I, the company finished a much smaller extension of the system, phase two, from Steele City to Cushing in February of 2011.
Cushing, Oklahoma, is known as the “pipeline crossroads of the world,” and is a major trading hub for the oil industry. When President Obama gave his “all of the above” energy speech in that city in March of 2012, he ordered the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, known to Southerners as the “Gulf Coast Project,” expedited, declaring that he would cut the “red tape” holding up the process.
The southern leg of the pipeline did not require his approval because it will not be crossing an international border, unlike phase four of the project, the extension of the entire Keystone system — The Keystone XL — or the expansion of the Keystone network from Alberta to Steele City.
The Keystone I pipeline has the capacity to carry up to 590,000 barrels of tar sands crude per day to storage tanks in Cushing. From there, the “Gulf Coast Project” will have the initial capacity to carry more than 700,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude, with the potential to transport 830,000 barrels per day, completing a direct line from Canada — and that’s without the northern extension and expansion of the Keystone system.
The Keystone I pipeline is already pumping Canadian crude across seven states and tar sands are already being stored in tanks in Cushing. Julia Trigg Crawford’s farm is one of the only legal gray areas standing in the way of that tar sands crude getting to the Gulf to be refined and exported for profit.
The pipeline became a flashpoint in the climate justice movement after leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen called the project “the fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet.” He stated that if all the carbon stored in the Alberta tar sands is released into the atmosphere, it would put us past the carbon parts-per-million tipping-point, calling it “game over” for the planet.
The northern, cross-border expansion of the project would make that fuse burn faster, doubling the Keystone pipeline system’s carrying capacity to more than 800,000 barrels per day, but what many who are concerned about the state of the atmosphere are missing is that the fuse is about to be lit, with or without the Keystone XL’s northern extension.
And that’s why the health of Crawford’s farm is not only vital to her and her family but also crucial to the preservation of the global climate.
“[Landowners] figured TransCanada was going to find a way to get the southern leg built. So, we weren’t necessarily surprised they were going to uncouple it,” Crawford says. “The petition for condemnation that was filed at our place, in the Lamar County courthouse … did not say ‘Keystone XL,’ it said the ‘Keystone Pipeline Project,’ and it left this interesting kind of question: Well, which project is it?”
Crawford said she was hesitant to celebrate after the president denied the first construction permit for the project’s northern extension in January of 2012, suspecting the company would proceed with the southern portion of the project. And many environmentalists thought the battle was simply done at that time — not understanding the full scope of Keystone XL.
Crawford was ultimately right about TransCanada’s strategy for the pipeline, but continues to oppose TransCanada’s intimidation and bullying tactics. TransCanada was able to condemn Crawford’s land after the company applied for and received common carrier status from the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating oil and gas. Common carrier status allows corporations the power to seize private property through eminent domain, and usually denotes a project is in the public interest.
During her initial court proceeding in Lamar County, Crawford called for TransCanada to prove its common carrier status as a public project because the Texas Railroad Commission’s application process for common carrier status does not require any validation. TransCanada simply filled out a government form for the permit, known as the T4 form, and checked a box labeled “common carrier.”
But a Texas Supreme Court case, Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Green Pipeline, backs up Crawford’s claim. The court ruled in favor of Texas landowners, saying that the T4 permit is not enough to show a pipeline is necessarily a common carrier and therefore does not conclusively establish eminent domain power for private companies granted that status by the Texas Railroad Commission.
The Texas Railroad Commission has stated that it has no regulatory authority to make sure private companies don’t abuse eminent domain power.
In August of 2012, Lamar County Judge Bill Harris added insult to injury when he ruled in favor of TransCanada via a 15-word text message from his iPhone sent to Crawford’s email inbox. Her decision to stay in the legal fight by appealing the ruling is partly why she decided to host a benefit concert on her farm Saturday, April 20, to help pay for her exorbitant court costs.
Dr. Ott believes the direct-action movement taking shape in Texas and Oklahoma is vital to the discussion surrounding the pipeline. “The importance of the actions [in Texas] cannot be overstated; this is sort of like the anchor that everybody else is going to be pulling against,” she says.
The Tar Sands Blockade has changed the national discussion surrounding the pipeline and has had a clear influence on the national environmental organizations, creating space for acts of civil disobedience that groups like the Sierra Club would have never considered participating in previously.
The President’s forthcoming decision on the northern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline is immensely important, but if tar sands are as devastating to the environment as Hansen says, equally important is the pending decision of the appellate courts on Crawford’s case, as well as the work being done by the Blockade to stand in solidarity with landowners like her.
While Crawford represents the legal face of the struggle against the pipeline at its last stage, the Tar Sands Blockade represents the physical resistance to the project, and both elements may prove key to what a winning climate strategy may look like before the carbon parts per million in the atmosphere add up to “game over” for the planet.