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Tar Sands Blockade: Who are these people?
by Vicki Wolf, February 2013
Photo credit: Laura Borealis and Tar Sands Blockade

Who would dare start an environmental, climate justice movement in the backwoods of East Texas and Oklahoma? They call themselves the Tar Sands Blockade, “a coalition of Texas and Oklahoma landowners and climate justice organizers using peaceful and sustained civil disobedience to stop the construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.” It all began when a small group of students at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton became determined to do something about tar sands. Their opportunity presented itself in Winnsboro, Texas.

Grace Spoon was one of the group, known as Rising Tide, to organize the action. “We were talking a lot about tar sands and didn’t know what we could do about it,” Spoon recalls. They met a landowner in Winnsboro who had been fighting the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL). “We had this idea to get in their way,” Spoon says. “To be a formidable presence -- from the backwoods to the boardrooms we wanted to tell them how dangerous this is for our community.”

Farmers, landowners, students and environmentalist oppose The Keystone XL pipeline for several reasons: The pipeline is being built by TransCanada to carry toxic, corrosive tar sands from Alberta, Canada to Port Arthur and Houston, Texas. The multi-national corporation is cutting down trees, destroying springs and digging through farms and gardens on private property in Texas and Oklahoma to build the pipeline. Extraction, transport and refining require ghastly amounts of energy and water. The risks for spills with tar sands is greater than conventional crude. Refining the tar sands requires a hydro-cracker plant and special piping for the corrosive tar sands.Toxic emissions from refining is higher for tar sands than for crude and will increase air pollution in Port Arthur and Houston.

Ramsey Sprague, a spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, says activists who join the coalition tend to be from smaller, tight-knit organizations like Rising Tide, Green Peace and Earth First. Actions are decided on by the group depending on what resources are available and what makes sense. “We are facing off against a multinational corporation, an industry that is part of the most powerful industry on the planet -- we have to pull together all the resource we can and temper messaging to engage all parties,” Sprague says.

Much of the Tar Sands Blockade coalition consists of young people. They live in offices, churches or camps on location where the action is needed. They depend on supporters for a place to shower and other basic needs. “We live together,” Grace Spoon says. “Numerous allies open up space for us.”

In the first Tar Sands Blockade action, Spoon and others set up a village of tree-sitters to try and halt pipeline construction on land in Winnsboro. She was arrested for trespassing and spent two days in the Wood County Jail for trespassing. She says going to jail was easier than seeing the trees being cut down. “It was good to be away from the construction,” she says. “It was devastating to see this unique ecosystem being destroyed for pipeline -- old growth post oak trees, 100 years old, in the piney woods.” The 85-day tree-sit resulted in TransCanada rerouting the pipeline to go around the Winnsboro tree-sit.

The landowners who are fighting to keep the pipeline construction off their land are supported by the blockade. Michael Bishop is a retired chemist, Marine Corp veteran and landowner in Douglass, Texas. He has spent untold hours representing himself pro se in Nacogdoches County Court to defend his land and constitutional rights. He has researched every aspect of the law regarding a multinational corporation claiming eminent domain and building a pipeline through his property.

Bishop managed to get a temporary restraining order to stop pipeline construction on his property. On December 13, the county judge reversed the TRO and now a pipeline is being constructed through Bishop’s garden. “I use to have a one-half to three-quarter acre garden, but now I have no place to grow food,” Bishop says. “They’ve completely destroyed the pasture. The pipeline goes right down the middle of my property.” Bishop isn’t giving up. He plans to refile suit against TransCanada. He also plans to sue the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Railroad Commission.

Seventy-eight year old Eleanor Fairchild had never been in jail, but when she and Daryl Hannah jumped in front of TransCanada’s construction equipment as it came up the road toward her land, they were arrested. Fairchild is a good steward of her land and the two spring heads that produce 400 gallons of water a minute. “We can live without oil, but we can’t live without water,” Fairchild says. “Tar sands isn’t even oil. ”

TransCanada brought their heavy equipment onto Fairchild’s property, dug trenches for the pipe then filled in with sand. “They didn’t bore beneath the stream,” Fairchild says. When floods came, the sand from the erosion filled the creeks and streams with sand. Fairchild says anything they have tried to do to repair the area has been more destructive than helpful. She says she hasn’t been able to get anyone to listen to her, and now she is being sued by TransCanada. Fairchild says, “It makes me sad for our country. We have become a police state out here. We have no rights.”

Gulf Coast refineries are the end of the line where TransCanada plans to process the tar sands into fuel and export it. Veteran activist Diane Wilson was inspired by the fact that bold actions were happening in East Texas. She decided she could help by doing a hunger strike on the Houston Ship Channel. “Once it hit me, I drove up in the woods and went looking for them and found them, and said this is what I want to do,” Wilson says.

Wilson was joined by another veteran Gulf Coast activist, Bob Lindsey Jr., and members of the Houston Manchester neighborhood community in demanding “that the Valero refinery, which has been polluting the air surrounding their homes for decades, reveal exactly what toxins it is forcing residents to breathe.” Wilson and Lindsey committed to an indefinite hunger strike until Valero agrees to divest from the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which is linked to environmental destruction and human rights abuses in Canada. The hunger strike lasted 45 days with no response from Valero.

The Tar Sands Blockade has grown to an international movement that has even inspired the Sierra Club to become involved in non-violent civil disobedience. Grace Spoon says, “Something we are all excited about is that we have invested in creating a network of leaders in communities. We can act together in sync, one voice that can’t be ignored.”

As TransCanada plows through one property after another, there are fewer farms and ecosystems left to protect on the pipeline route. So in early January, the blockade moved from the backwoods to the boardroom. About a hundred blockade members stormed the lobby of TransCanada’s Keystone XL offices in Houston. When police forced them out of the lobby they performed street theatre on the sidewalk. Concerned citizens and other groups around the country, including Austin, New York City and Boston, joined the protest.

What’s next for the Tar Sands Blockade? A surprise, if past actions are any indication. The coalition has evolved by applying new tactics and continually trying to escalate, according to Sprague. “We are learning a lesson in a public way about how important it is to leave a story that is compelling and also do something about it in a meaningful way and a symbolic way,” he says.

Related Links:

Tar Sands Blockade blog
“Keystone XL Pipeline Threatens Texas’ Land, Water, Air and Public Health”

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