Skip to main content

Protesters in Texas have spent the past 70 days trying to block construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.Julie Dermansky

For more than 70 days now, protesters have holed up in trees in Texas, trying to block construction of the southern leg of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline. They have barricaded themselves inside long stretches of welded pipe, facing police mace in a bid to slow construction. They have locked themselves to equipment, and formed human chains. They have staged hunger strikes from jail cells.

"There's a lot of resistance and animosity toward the project," said Ron Seifert, who comes from Montana and is now a spokesman for Tar Sands Blockade, a group created earlier this year to co-ordinate civil disobedience. More than 40 people have been arrested. Tar Sands Blockade said half were Texan; TransCanada says all but one were out-of-state.

What's happening deep in the U.S. South, however, is likely a precursor of what it is to come for other controversial pipelines. Texas is not a place that is generally opposed to oil. Yet protesters have converged on the state in hopes of interfering with construction of a project that has stoked an angry debate about the future of energy development.

If such conflict can happen in Texas, there is a strong likelihood it will happen again, and in greater force, in Nebraska – the state where opposition delayed a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline – in British Columbia and other areas of North America where new pipelines are planned.

"It seems to me that the Texas leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is the least controversial of these pipelines," said George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia professor who specializes in environmental and natural resource policy and governance. "So the closer you get to the oil sands, and the closer you get to the B.C. coast, the more controversial it's going to get."

On Tuesday, a Texas court ordered TransCanada to temporarily halt work on part of the pipeline pending a hearing on a property owner's claim that the bitumen to be carried through the pipe doesn't meet the definition of crude oil under Texas law.

TransCanada said that, under Texas law, it has been granted authority to build the pipeline, and insists the ruling, and the protests, will not derail the company's construction plan. To get around the tree protesters, it just diverted course: The pipeline now avoids the copse they are occupying. TransCanada says the $2.3-billion, 780-kilometre pipeline, which will carry oil from Cushing, Okla., to Gulf Coast refineries, will be built by late 2013.

But the picture of tree dwellers in Texas is a picture of the arduous road ahead for other projects, which stand to face much more difficult obstacles to actually building pipelines, if they manage to secure government approval to do so.

It was, after all, Nebraska that first saw thousands of people attend public meetings, then saw the state legislature create new rules so it could assert control over the Keystone XL pipeline route. That process is now nearing its end, but the new route has done little to cool anger among the fiercest opponents of the northern leg of Keystone XL, which could be built starting early next year if it receives a presidential permit.

"Farmers and ranchers there are at least as angry as folks in Texas, and won't simply stand by and watch without comment as a pipeline gets built across their land and atop their aquifer. And I imagine they'd have support from elsewhere in the country," said Bill McKibben, a climate activist with

But the largest powder keg of all likely resides in British Columbia, the birthplace of Greenpeace, the location of what was, for years, the largest act of civil disobedience at Clayoquot Sound. Activists are now leveraging their experience there in the early 1990s to much greater effect, through massive databases and the organizing power of social media.

"There is no question," says Tzeporah Berman, an environmental activist charged with 857 counts of criminal aiding and abetting during the Clayoquot protests, that efforts to interfere with construction of Enbridge Inc.'s planned Northern Gateway pipeline "will be bigger."

Where Clayoquot Sound loggers faced environmental groups concerned about old-growth forest, Enbridge, she said, "is facing a perfect storm." There are environmentalists, of course. But they have been joined by "first nations concerns about sovereignty, to landowner concerns about their liabilities and risks, to the fisheries and tourism industries' concern about their livelihood."

Or, as Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an organization firmly opposed to Gateway, put it: "There's never been a project in B.C. that's ever had this much opposition." He added: "All the same players that were involved [in Clayoquot Sound] are involved in this, and multiply that by 10."

Enbridge, for its part, has said it is beginning to see a turning of the tide, and that opposition is beginning to wane. The company, which declined to comment on possible civil disobedience that might take place well into the future, believes it has enough time to assuage concerns and cool the fires burning against it.

But for now, at least, that is hardly apparent. Last week the Haisla First Nation, which claims the land where the Gateway pipeline would load supertankers, pulled out of Coastal First Nations. But after signs that the Haisla opposition to Gateway was softening, the group said its "approach to Enbridge has not changed. … We are unwavering on this point."

Long before they are built, other pipelines, too, are facing real activism: In late November, a clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation, which lies along the Gateway route, booted surveyors for a natural gas pipeline off their land and took some of their equipment. Last week, Kinder Morgan Inc. pulled out of an information session in Victoria, after protesters began putting their own signs in place of company signs.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe