Publicity around TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline has faded since U.S. President Barack Obama delayed his decision on whether or not to approve the project until after the 2012 election. While Canadians aren’t talking about it much anymore, many landowners in states through which the pipeline is anticipated to run are fighting a pitched battle against the Calgary-based corporation.
If the entire 3,460-kilometre Keystone XL pipeline is approved, it will run from Hardisty, Alberta, through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Obama did allow construction of the southern portion of the line, which runs from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast. Construction began in August of this year, immediately motivating protestors opposed to the pipeline to blockade it.
In Texas and Oklahoma, numerous landowners have refused to sign over right-of-way for TransCanada to install the pipeline on their land. When negotiations between TransCanada’s land agents and the landowners have failed, the pipeline company often applies to have the land they need condemned and claims “common carrier” status for itself, which allows the project to be legally considered a public work for the common good and gives TransCanada the right to seize the land it needs under eminent domain laws (known in Canada as expropriation).
Landowners have taken the company to court to prevent such action, so far with mixed results. While the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that application for common carrier status does not guarantee the right to seize land, county judges continue to base eminent domain cases on their own judgment. Julia Trigg Crawford was informed by Lamar County Judge Bill Harris that she must make way for TransCanada crews on her family’s land.
In another example, farmer David Hightower in Winnsboro, Texas publicly refused TransCanada’s offers for his land. On September 24, as construction crews arrived to clear trees in preparation for the pipeline, Hightower allowed protestors from Tar Sands Blockade to literally camp in the trees, stopping crews in their tracks.
Tar Sands Blockade spokesperson Ron Seifert, a conservation activist from Montana, says the nine people camped in Hightower’s forest and the dozen supporting them below are determined to remain until TransCanada withdraws.
Seifert says the goal of his group is “just tell the truth about what’s going on here.” Tar Sands Blockade has several ongoing protests against the pipeline throughout Texas. He says pronouncements from TransCanada and politicians who support it that the pipeline will create tens of thousand of jobs or bolster U.S. energy security are false.
“This is a private for-profit venture that is taking and seizing private property in Texas, appropriating homes from Texans and Americans all in the name of corporate profit,” he says.
Meanwhile, in states where TransCanada has plans to build the Keystone XL, but not the approval, landowner opposition is also high because the company is already negotiating for right-of-way access there.
Without federal approval to bring the pipeline over the Canada-U.S. border, TransCanada cannot use eminent domain laws to seize land in Nebraska. But landowner Jane Kleeb of pipeline opponent group Bold Nebraska says land agents have been threatening to do just that.
“We have several documented cases where TransCanada’s land agents will tell older, kind of widowed women who live still on the family ranch, you know, that unless they sign today they’re going to take them to court using eminent domain and then they won’t get any money for their land. That is a common story that land agents do. Or land agents tell folks, ‘You’re the last one to sign in this area. All your neighbours have signed. You don’t really want to be the outsider in your own neighbourhood, do you?’” Kleeb says.
In Calgary, TransCanada spokesperson Grady Semmens says the company works hard to negotiate with landowners for access.
“As far as eminent domain goes, that’s always a tool of last resort. I mean we always try and do as much as we can to negotiate directly with landowners to reach agreements on compensation that they feel is appropriate. And typically it involves compensation that’s greater than the actual land value of the property involved,” says Semmens.
Opposition to the Keystone XL project has been high in Nebraska since it was first proposed, and remains so even after the company agreed to reroute it away from the Ogallala aquifer. Recently, the Nebraska Easement Action Team (NEAT) was formed to give landowners legal support when land agents come knocking.
David Domina is one of the lawyers representing the nearly 150 landowners in NEAT. He says TransCanada is being “pushy” and its claims of fair negotiation methods are unfounded.
“If they love working with people, why did they threaten condemnation before they had the authority? ...Why do they call at odd hours of the day and night when they’ve been told not to?” he asks. Domina also says he doesn’t understand why Nebraskans are dealing with TransCanada right now at all.
“What in the world are they doing here if they don’t have the authority to build a pipeline?” he says. TransCanada “ought to get a presidential permit and then come down here and talk.”
Domina and Kleeb both say the pipeline company is spending thousands on lobbying state senators to support the project, regardless of presidential approval. However, they also agree legislative support won’t be enough.
“You might be able to buy politicians, but you can’t buy public support,” says Domina.
Back in Texas, Hightower and TransCanada had reached an access agreement as of October 2, and protestors were asked to leave. They refused. TransCanada’s Semmens says though the protestors are now trespassing, their safety is a concern and crews will not disturb them. Tar Sands Blockade’s Seifert expressed no plans to abandon the blockade, though unbeknownst to him it was a battle already lost.
“Yesterday, instead of attempting to extract the blockaders and cut through their right-of-way, TransCanada has rerouted construction around the blockade…. We’re unsure of why that is at this point,” says Seifert.
Semmens knows why. “We shifted the right-of-way slightly to the west and we’ve now cleared the right-of-way entirely across that person’s property. So we have cleared the right-of-way and avoided the people who are illegally trespassing on that land,” he says.
TransCanada still faces opposition in nine states, over thousands of kilometres.
“TransCanada really treats landowners poorly. They lie to them about what’s in the pipeline. They lie to them about the eminent domain process, and so that’s left a really bad taste in folks’ mouths as well…. Folks who’ve had land in their family for over 100 years, was passed down from fathers to daughters and grandkids — they don’t like the fact that a piece of that land is going to be going to a foreign corporation for oil that’s going to be sold on the export market,” says Kleeb. “People call us crazy, but I still believe we can stop it or we wouldn’t be fighting as hard as we are.”