East Texas: People vs. Oil
When Texas is portrayed in popular culture, oil tends to be in the picture. Too often, “Texas Tea” is shown as the state’s main attraction, or even its pride and joy. With the unwelcome arrival of the Keystone XL Pipeline, however, we learned of one commercialized phrase that did prove to be true: Don’t mess with Texas. They will fight back.
TransCanada Energy Corporation began plans for constructing an oil pipeline traveling from Alberta, Canada, to the southern United States in 2008. The Keystone XL Pipeline would transport raw bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands across thousands of miles of vital US farmland.
Almost every step in the process of Transcanada’s project is harmful to people and the environment.
In its natural state, the bitumen used to produce oil from Alberta’s Tar Sands has the consistency of tar, or cold molasses. Because the bitumen can’t be pumped from underground like conventional oil, it has to be mined, usually through strip or open-pit mining techniques that destroy entire ecosystems. The extraction process requires huge amounts of water to heat and separate the bitumen from the sand, clay, and water that make up the tar sands and then refine it into something usable. To convert the semi-solid substance into liquid that can be transported by pipelines, it must then be diluted with higher-grade, lighter oil and heated up so it can flow smoothly.
According to Greenpeace, the Tar Sands use twice the amount of water as the entire nearby city of Calgary. Carbon dioxide emissions from the oil sands are estimated to be 20% higher than average emissions from petroleum production.
One would hope that a pipeline carrying toxic crude bitumen would have little to no chance of leaking. In the Great Plains of South Dakota, however, the Keystone I pipeline — one of the newer pipelines designed expressly for tar sands oil — was projected to experience 11 leaks over its entire lifetime. It has already leaked 12 times in the past year. In 2010, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners leaked one million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
Originally, the Keystone XL pipeline was planned to traverse the Nebraskan Sandhills, a large wetland system, and dangerously cross paths with the Ogalalla Aquifer, one of the world’s largest freshwater reserves that spans eight states. A major leakage would ruin drinking water for two million people. After public outcry, TransCanada “refined” the pipeline route in September 2012, making it so the Sandhills, at least, would be avoided.
We were lucky enough to come across Betty Sue Scott, a local landowner, and her son, Gabriel, who were appalled to discover that TransCanada was beginning attempts to take control of their property in order to build the Keystone pipeline several years ago. After decades of working to build up and maintain the property for her family, and raising her children and grandchildren to love respect the land, she learned of the harmful effects the pipeline and tar sands oil would have on her land and water supply—and, more importantly, the Earth.
In a community largely composed of Tea Party members and football fans, TransCanada swooped in to approach the proprietors of land it was looking to drill and used intimidation tactics and bribery to pressure them into signing documents to grant permission. Residents were told lies of how their neighbors have all signed the agreement in order to isolate and manipulate them. TransCanada also made a point to lubricate local opinions by feigning philanthropy and donating thousands of dollars to local businesses.
Betty Sue is a longtime resident, currently defending her territory against TransCanada. A seasoned nature walker, she is rarely without her adorned walking stick, and had gone a lifetime staying a stranger to sickness. Once her days began being spent at town hall meetings, writing senators, or on the phone trying to find a way out from under the pipeline’s thumb, Betty Sue started to experience heart and anxiety problems on a regular basis.
Gabriel grew up on the property, and after working for oil companies, being in the military, and starting his own family, he felt a strong desire to return to his mother’s land and live a peaceful life surrounded by nature. He built a house from scratch for his wife and children. Gabriel is a Desert Storm veteran who spoke of how the U.S. government trained him to fight enemies overseas—now he finds himself having to fight a giant industrial enemy here, saying, “They taught me to fight, so I’m going to fight.”