On Terror Alert: Inside Big Oil’s Fight to Build Keystone

Workers inspect a weld on the joint between two sections of pipe on a Gulf Coast Project pipeline in Atoka, Oklahoma.

Workers inspect a weld on the joint between two sections of pipe on a Gulf Coast Project pipeline in Atoka, Oklahoma.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The intelligence was alarming: homegrown extremists were said to be targeting the Keystone XL pipeline.

It was April 2013, and environmentalists had joined together in opposition to the 1,700-mile (2,735-kilometer) Keystone system, which connects the oil sands of Alberta to refineries in the U.S.

Inside the Nebraska State Patrol’s training center that Thursday, the briefing painted an ominous picture. Radical groups had threatened oil workers and vandalized equipment in Texas and Oklahoma. Now, they might target pipeline construction in Nebraska. The recommendation: under the law, it was possible to consider these people potential terrorists.

That risk assessment, laid out in documents obtained through open-records requests, wasn’t provided by law enforcement. It was provided by TransCanada Corp., the Calgary-based company that has waged a long campaign to sell America on Keystone XL and the Canadian crude it would carry. President Barack Obama vetoed Congress’s approval of extending the pipeline, but the fight is far from over.

Few understand the threats facing corporations better than corporations, and few could argue with putting safety first. Yet the alarms TransCanada raised in Nebraska that morning were part of a broad campaign for Keystone XL, the documents suggest. Time and again, in private e-mails and closed-door meetings with federal, state and local law enforcement, the Canadian company characterized peaceful opponents engaged in constitutionally protected protest as dangerous radicals or worse.

Civil Disturbance

“We were simply discussing various issues and potential problems with civil disturbance or criminal disturbance, that’s all,” Thomas Herzog, an attorney for Holt County, Nebraska, said of the April 2013 briefing. “We’re criticized for meeting about it, and we’ll be criticized if something happens and we didn’t have any plan.”

Since 2008, as the energy industry has touted Keystone and hydraulic fracturing, companies like TransCanada have also tried to mold opinions in the communities where they operate.

TransCanada representatives have met with law-enforcement officers in at least two states. Hundreds of pages of meeting logs, police e-mails and other documents obtained by Bloomberg suggest TransCanada provided intelligence on protesters’ activities and, at times, helped guide law enforcement’s response.

“When we are asked to share what we have learned or are prepared for, we are there to share our experience,” Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We do not direct law enforcement at any time.”


In the presentation in Nebraska, a TransCanada representative provided the names and photographs of 27 activists. Two of them had been pepper-sprayed, Tasered and arrested after locking themselves to Keystone construction equipment in rural Texas, police records show. They’ve filed a lawsuit saying the police used excessive force at the behest of a TransCanada official, a claim the local officials and the company deny.

“The main goal of corporations working in this way is to try to have a small group of activists get hammered with serious charges so the community will be afraid to stand up and protest,” said Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon, who has helped Keystone activists.

Different Strategy

TransCanada isn’t alone in facing criticism for how it deals with opposition. Richard Berman, a veteran political consultant, helped the oil and gas industry wage a public-relations campaign called Big Green Radicals: “win ugly or lose pretty.” Berman has urged members of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry association, to discredit opponents by researching how they’re financed and mocking them in ads, according to a recording provided to Bloomberg by an environmental advocate who got it from an attendee.

Sarah Longwell, a spokeswoman for Berman & Co., didn’t answer messages seeking comment.

In November, TransCanada ended its contract with public-relations firm Edelman after leaked documents showed a strategy of investigating opponents of a different TransCanada pipeline project. Edelman stands by its strategy, Michael Bush, an Edelman spokesman, said.

Agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation called or visited the homes or workplaces of at least 12 activists in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Colorado and Pennsylvania between October 2014 and January 2015, according to Larry Hildes, a lawyer in Bellingham, Washington, who represents some of the people. Their only apparent connection is opposition to oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline, he said.

Gathering Information

When Hildes asked the FBI about the contacts, he was told the agents were just gathering information; there was no actual or potential criminal investigation. Denise Ballew, an FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau doesn’t comment on individuals or groups it may have contacted.

In the past, the FBI has been criticized for improperly targeting Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and anti-war groups in domestic terrorism investigations. A 2010 report by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice found there was “little or no basis” for the investigations, which extended from 2001 to 2006. At least two innocent people were placed on the domestic terrorism watch list for years.

The investigations started with tips that suggested potential crimes and the bureau didn’t target groups based on their political activities, then-FBI Deputy Director Timothy P. Murphy said at the time.

Darker Picture

Even peaceful protests can endanger lives and property, particularly when heavy equipment and oil pipelines are involved. But violence directed against the oil industry has been rare in the U.S.

Oil companies were victims of sabotage three times and arson twice from 1970 to 2013, according to Jennifer Varriale Carson, a professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg who studies terrorism. The most recent attack was in September 2001, when the Earth Liberation Front sabotaged oil exploration equipment in Moab, Utah. No one was hurt.

Energy companies have painted a darker picture. At a 2011 industry conference in Houston, for instance, a representative of The Woodlands, Texas-based Anandarko Petroleum Corp. told attendees that oil and gas companies were facing nothing less than an insurgency, according to a recording. To prepare, the representative, Matt Carmichael, said, the audience should download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counter-Insurgency Field Manual, the military’s guidebook to a post-9/11 world and the age of international terrorism.

“Those comments in no way reflect the approach we take to our stakeholders,” said John Christiansen, an Anadarko spokesman. “We value open communication at every step of the process.”

Carmichael could not be reached for comment.

Sharing Information

TransCanada and law-enforcement officials agree: some anti-Keystone activists have broken the law. Given the potential threat, the company willingly shares what it knows.

TransCanada’s 60-slide presentation to the Nebraska State Patrol in Grand Island noted that there had been no physical violence in Texas and Oklahoma, and the “level of capability and intent” in Nebraska was “low.” The protesters were professionally organized and well-funded, with active recruiting on social media, the company said. Their tactics included climbing trees, locking themselves to equipment and sabotaging machinery, resulting in long standoffs or arrests, according to the presentation.

‘Couple Incidents’

Before the meeting, Michael Nagina, a corporate security adviser at TransCanada, e-mailed police and state intelligence officers about issues such as an arrest in another state, an online petition and a news article quoting a hostile landowner, according to records obtained by Bloomberg.

“Just wanted to let you know of a couple incidents which occurred this week,” Nagina said in the 2011 e-mail to state police officers and an FBI agent. “Although there is no imminent threat and they were not criminal in nature they could be an indicator of future demonstrations or protests and provided as intelligence.” Details of the information he shared were redacted by the state patrol.

Activists say law enforcement has gone too far. In Oklahoma, for instance, undercover police officers infiltrated a group of protesters, preempting a planned demonstration at a TransCanada storage facility, according to a police report obtained by Bloomberg News.

Radical Fringe

The FBI has taken the threat seriously and shares TransCanada’s position that some Keystone opponents are members of the radical fringe. In 2014 the FBI issued a warning to be on the lookout for “environmental extremists” who, in the absence of the Keystone pipeline, would target rail shipments of oil from fracking sites or Canadian oil sands.

In that “Private Sector Advisory,” entitled “Increased Use of Railways to Transport Crude Oil May Lead to Acts of Environmental Extremism,” the FBI acknowledged there were no specific threats. The list of things to watch for included vandalism, interrupting rail traffic, organizing on social media, cyberattacks, homemade bombs and graffiti.

“They want it to be known that they’re watching,” said Adam Briggle, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas in Denton who said he was questioned by the FBI and Dallas police in 2012 after protesting against fracking. “It makes you more leery and wary of who’s watching. It puts you on guard.”

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