Protesters sitting in trees or blocking equipment used to build TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline are learning that environmental activism in East Texas sometimes has big consequences. Matthew Almonte, Glen Collins, and Isabel Brooks landed in jail in Tyler on Dec. 3, charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass, resisting arrest, and illegal dumping after they entered an unlaid pipe at a construction site near Winona, Tex., and tried to stop work on the $7.6 billion project. Once completed, the pipeline will bring products of the Alberta tar sands to Houston-area refineries.
The trio, who remain locked up, are among more than 30 arrested since October near Tyler and Nacogdoches for similar acts. “You have just about every mainstream NGO speaking about game-over for the planet if this pipeline is built,” says Ron Seifert, a spokesman for the protest group Tar Sands Blockade. “There is a disconnect between that rhetoric and the willingness to take aggressive action like the Tar Sands Blockade is doing.”
The Keystone project became a cause célèbre last year among environmental activists, who say extracting oil from tar sands releases three times more carbon dioxide than conventional drilling and increases global warming. President Obama blocked the northern U.S. leg, citing environmental risks in Nebraska. The southern end runs from Oklahoma through Texas. TransCanada, which says on its website it expects to win approval for the northern leg early next year, has consistently prevailed in court over opponents to the southern section of the 2,151-mile pipeline. (An updated review of a revised northern route may be released in days.) Output from Canada’s tar sands, currently 1.5 million barrels a day, is forecast to double by 2020. Keystone will also carry crude from North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas.
The dozens of mostly twentysomething activists who have pitched tents on a ranch outside Nacogdoches have not had a friendly reception. About 95 percent of landowners favor the project for financial reasons, says John Johnson, a rancher in Douglass who has leased acreage to TransCanada to accommodate the pipeline. “I think the pipeline has been fair in its dealings.” Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, in an essay posted on his website in October, called the protesters “a bunch of out-of-state, self-appointed eco-anarchists.”
In the Dec. 3 protest, Almonte and Collins chained their arms to two 600-pound concrete barrels that they had somehow placed inside the pipe in hopes of making it difficult for construction to continue. Sheriff’s deputies pulled the barrels out of the pipe and arrested the men, along with Brooks, who was in the pipe filming the protest. Almonte, Collins, and Brooks have each asked for a reduction of the $65,000 bond that must be posted to get out of jail pending trial, without success. “If they’ve been charged with misdemeanors and don’t have prior criminal records, $65,000 bond is ridiculously high,” says Brandon Baade, a criminal defense lawyer in Tyler.
Grace Cagle, 22, started organizing the East Texas blockade while studying for a biology degree at the University of North Texas at Denton. She spent 16 days in a treehouse 80 feet off the ground on property leased to TransCanada. After coming down on Oct. 17, she was arrested on a criminal trespass charge and spent 17 hours in jail before being released on a $1,500 bond. Cagle counts it as a small victory that the stand of trees remain. “A real special ecosystem is still standing because of the actions we took,” says Cagle, who grew up in suburban Dallas. “There we were able to stop them.”