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Texas Landowners Join Environmentalists for Historic Blockade of Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

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A standoff is underway in Texas over construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would run oil from the Canadian tar sands fields to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. In a protest now entering its fourth week, dozens of environmental activists working with local Texas landowners have blocked the pipeline’s path with tree sits and other nonviolent protests. We speak to Susan Scott, who owns land where the pipeline will run; actress Daryl Hannah, who was arrested there last week and has long been active in protests against the pipeline; and Tar Sands Blockade coalition spokesperson Ron Seifert. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Texas, where a standoff is underway over construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would run tar sands oil from Canada to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. While President Obama delayed a final decision on the pipeline until after the November election, he has already approved TransCanada’s plans for the southern portion of the project. But as the pipeline route makes its way down from Cushing, Oklahoma, it’s run into resistance in Winnsboro, Texas, about two hours east of Dallas. In a protest now entering its fourth week, dozens of environmental activists working with local landowners here have blocked the pipeline’s path with tree sits and other nonviolent protests. Recently, actress Daryl Hannah and a 78-year-old East Texas farmer were arrested while protesting the clearance of her land seized by eminent domain. This is Eleanor Fairchild, speaking as she stared down one of the TransCanada’s bulldozers.

ELEANOR FAIRCHILD: I am mad. This land is my land, and it’s been our land since '83. Our home is on it. They're going to destroy the woods, and also they could destroy the springs. It’s just devastating, but it also is not very good to have the tar sands anywhere in the United States. This is not just about my land; it’s about all of our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Much of the property the Keystone XL passes through was obtained by eminent domain after a judge ruled TransCanada is a so-called “common carrier” and that its pipeline could be used by any oil company willing to pay published rates.

While the blockade has drawn plenty of attention, protesters have had to document much it themselves because off-duty police officers paid by TransCanada have set up a perimeter blocking reporters from accessing the actions. Last week, two journalists with press credentials were arrested and spent the night in jail before their charges were dropped. Police also detained two New York Times reporters, handcuffing them before letting them go.

For more, we’re going directly to Wood County, Texas, where we’re joined by campaign spokesperson Ron Seifert, who’s roughly 15 miles from the proposed Keystone XL route. Protesters just finished an action camp to get more people involved in the protest, and today they plan to hold one of their biggest actions yet. And we’re joined on the phone by actor and activist Daryl Hannah in California. In Texas, we’re joined by Susan Scott, who owns land in the area where the XL pipeline will run. She said she came to regret accepting tens of thousands of dollars from TransCanada for access to her land after she learned more about the pipeline.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin right now with Ron Seifert. Explain what is planned for today, and, overall, give us the story of what is happening in Winnsboro, Texas, right now.

RON SEIFERT: Well, in Winnsboro, Texas, Amy, the blockaders have been occupying the canopy of an old-growth forest for over three weeks now and beginning their fourth week today. And there’s been multiple blockade events, where individuals have taken risks to stop construction sites, shutting down construction for days at a time in isolated incidences. That’s not just isolated to Wood County, but in all over Texas, where this pipeline construction is in full swing.

Today, to show solidarity with those blockaders that have come before us, and coming out of a successful weekend-long training camp and action training program, blockaders are going to do the largest walk-on protest construction site down in the history of the Keystone XL pipeline story. Over 30 blockaders are going to be taking directly to a construction site, and a few will involve themselves in some more technical activities to shut down construction hopefully for an entire day.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Ron, how eminent domain is being used, and then where climate change fits into this story?

RON SEIFERT: Certainly. In order for TransCanada to build this pipeline exactly where they wanted, they had to receive this eminent domain entitlement so they could unilaterally expropriate land instead of feeding their pipeline route circuitously across Texas and Oklahoma. In order to achieve or obtain that entitlement, they basically lied to the state of Texas and said they were a conventional, common crude oil pipeline that was going to be used for the public good and the public interest. We know that’s not the case. This is a private, for-profit venture, and there is no public good or public utility involved in this process. So, ultimately, TransCanada was granted this eminent domain entitlement by Texas without any Texas regulators ever authenticating or verifying their claim. No one has ever asked TransCanada to prove that what it’s doing is for the common good. Instead, they were able to approach landowners years ago and basically say, “We have the power of eminent domain, and we’re going to take your land whether you like it or not. We’ll try to haggle with you over a price, but if you don’t like it, we’re going to condemn you, take you to court, and you’re going to have to square off against our legal team and fight for every dollar you expect to get for your property.” So, it’s just like a typical Mafia shakedown. Landowners had no choice but to sign and take pittance for what their land was worth. Regardless of whether they wanted the pipeline in the first place, lots of innocent people are now being put directly in harm’s way.

AMY GOODMAN: Before you talk about climate change, I wanted to bring Susan Scott into the conversation. Susan, you own land in the area where the XL pipeline will run. And you accepted over $20,000 from TransCanada for access to your land. What is your concern now?

SUSAN SCOTT: Well, let me clarify that, from the very beginning, the reason I accepted the money is because I was forced to accept it because of what Ron said: they threatened me with a lawsuit of eminent domain. So I just figured I’d go on and take the money and do something with it. So, tell everybody to put their shovels up. It ain’t there, OK? So, you know, from the very beginning, I have told them I did not want them. I never, ever backed down on that statement, from day one.

I am very concerned. Mostly, it was a selfish concerned, to start out with. I didn’t want my pristine forest messed up, screwed up, whatever you want to call it. Didn’t want it—didn’t want it touched. And so, I held them off for two years. And then he told me that they had eminent domain. And now, then, it’s become an unselfish thing, when I really found out what they was fixing to put through there. It’s going to ruin our water system. It’s going to take away everything that we’ve worked for. And from the very beginning, they never told me the truth. And I just watched a thing on TV about Geraldo at Large the other night, and he was talking about it, and it was pretty bad.

And I feel like that our constitutional rights have been just wiped completely away, that we don’t have any more. I feel like that the government has bailed on us, and I told that openly. And I wrote the president and all the commissioners and whoever else, and their response was to pass the buck to somebody else. And I don’t know what else I can say other than that. I’ve always said I didn’t want them. And, yes, I did take the money, because they said they were taking my land anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get your response, Susan Scott, to this statement to the New York Times from TransCanada’s spokesperson, Shawn Howard, regarding the concerns of Texas landowners, like you, who—have about the pipeline crossing your property. He said, quote, “We have always been up front about the materials that are going into the pipeline.”

SUSAN SCOTT: That’s not true. They never, ever would tell me. I called that Randy Hutson in Houston on several times, and he said, “Well, that’s—you don’t—I’ll get that information to you right out.” That’s been two or maybe three years ago, I forgot what time it was. But I never have—they never have told me the actual contents of it, of the pipeline, period. And they keep saying it’s not tar sands, but we all know that it is. I mean, it’s quite obvious.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by actress Daryl Hannah, and she has been active against the pipeline for a long time and just recently, in the last few weeks, went down the Winnsboro, Texas, and was arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Daryl, welcome to Democracy Now! Why is this issue so important to you?

DARYL HANNAH: Well, I think even if we, you know, choose to ignore the ramifications of the climate crisis, we cannot deny the extreme drought that we’ve been experiencing in this country. Over 64 percent of the country was ravaged by drought this year. And those—you know, those effects on our agricultural system, on our food and water security, are actually a national—a national security problem, not just an energy security problem. But nevertheless, this KXL has been completely mischaracterized. It does not serve our energy security problems. This is an export pipeline, and it is carrying tar sands oil, which even the House and Ways Committee clearly states its crude oil isn’t—does not include shale oil or tar sands oil.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened when you went down at the beginning of October?

DARYL HANNAH: I went down, and I met with some of the farmers, ranchers and landowners who have been affected by these eminent domain abuses and who have been isolated and intimidated and bullied, and I heard their stories. And I was with Eleanor Fairchild, whose husband was in the oil business for 50 years. She knows about oil. She’s not even against oil or oil pipelines. But she’s against tar sands. And we heard the bulldozers and saw the smoke rising from her forest that had been cut down, which they had promised to lay the trees aside, the old-growth trees, so that she could use them for further use, but they were burning them. And we went and stepped in front of the heavy equipment to stop production and to—you know, to stand in solidarity with the other blockaders who are putting up a resistance to this fast-tracked pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Seifert, I wanted to play part of a phone call your colleagues made to the Wood County sheriff after he refused to allow food or water to activists participating in the blockade.

TAR SANDS BLOCKADE ACTIVIST: The situation is, as you—I’m sure you’re well aware, is there is a young woman 40 feet off the ground on a pole in the middle of the Keystone XL clearcut. And according to her and those on the scene, she has no intentions of coming down any time soon. However, her food and water supplies have been exhausted. And because of the presence of the Wood County Sheriff’s Department—are preventing other people from getting her much needed food and water. And wanted to call you and see if we could figure something out so we can get food and water to this person.

WOOD COUNTY SHERIFF: Is that all you have to say?

TAR SANDS BLOCKADE ACTIVIST: Yes, it is, sir. And I, if possible, would be interested in a conversation so we can get food and water to this human being.

WOOD COUNTY SHERIFF: I have already answered all that. And, sir, we are not commenting on that, especially to somebody that’s not involved in the situation. Have a nice day.

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Seifert, explain.

RON SEIFERT: Well, this type of disregard for the health and safety of those involved in and around the construction sites is endemic to the Keystone XL story. TransCanada supervisors have been present overseeing what the police and private security have been doing, how they’ve been treating protesters, peaceful protesters.

In the most egregious and brutal instance, two peaceful protesters were locked to each other, having their arms through the frame of a piece of heavy equipment, and TransCanada supervisors actually huddled with police, and shortly thereafter, the police took—in attempt to extract these protesters, handcuffed their free arms in stress positions behind their back. And then, while they were restrained, the police put these protesters in chokeholds. They contorted their locking devices to abrade their skin. And then they pepper-sprayed the protesters. And because of their conviction, the protesters remained in place until they took out the tasers and tased both protesters multiple times. This is all while TransCanada supervisors were watching, overseeing the whole affair. And as soon as the protesters were removed from the site, TransCanada supervisors approached the police and congratulated them on a — I quote — “a job well done,” and suggested that those tactics should be used right away in the future.

So, this is the posture that they’ve taken. This is a corporation, a multinational corporation, that is trespassing on stolen land. And although they claim to be a great neighbor, the have little to no regard for the health and safety of those that are defending their land, those individuals that are rising up and defending homes here in Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: There was an interesting piece in the New York Times, Ron, “Last-Ditch Bid in Texas to Try to Stop Oil Pipeline,” that ran over the weekend. What it didn’t mention is that Dan Frosch, who wrote the piece, was also handcuffed along with another New York Times reporter during the protest.

RON SEIFERT: That’s right. It’s interesting that was left out. But not only were the reporter and this photographer handcuffed—on private property, mind you—this was not that they were—had set foot on TransCanada’s easement or the construction site at all. They were on private property, where they had permission to be. The police that are working as private security for TransCanada—so just to emphasize that, these are police officers, wearing police uniforms, carrying state-issued weapons, but are on TransCanada’s time clock. Those police officers walked off the easement onto private property and handcuffed a journalist, detained them, restrained them, so they could not approach the blockaders, could not communicate with them, could not take pictures of what’s going on.

The day before, two other journalists wearing press credentials were handcuffed and, as you mentioned in your introduction, arrested and held overnight before they were released. In separate incidents, police have taken cameras of bystanders watching protests from public roadways and from private property, as well. So there is this environment and culture of repression of constitutionally protected rights—our land rights, our press, our speech. These things are under attack here in Texas, and TransCanada is leading the way of that attack.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ron, this issue of climate change, how the tar sands pipeline fits into that?

RON SEIFERT: Certainly. Well, that’s kind of the biggest piece of this whole blockade campaign. The Keystone XL pipeline will open the floodgates to what is the largest carbon pool in North America. The tar sands formation in Alberta is the largest hydrocarbon pool outside of Saudi Arabia. Industry has earmarked over 53,000 square miles for destruction, clearcutting and mining up there. That’s a forest area the size of New York state, so you can imagine your entire state just being wiped off the earth, destroyed.

And if all that carbon that they hope to dig up is burned and put into the atmosphere, it is game over for the climate. The science is just there. We do not have a carbon budget large enough to accommodate tar sands. It has to be stopped. We cannot allow this unfettered expansion of that exploitation. So the Keystone XL pipeline is just a necessary condition—to stop it, I should say, is a necessary condition for our collective future. If it goes online and starts moving over 800,000 barrels a day of this incredibly energy-intensive dirty fuel to the Gulf Coast refineries, we’re not going have a viable future on this planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Daryl Hannah, James Hansen, the director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said last May in the New York Times, “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” You’ve been arrested several times around this pipeline, most recently in Winnsboro, in Texas. Do you really think these actions can stop the pipeline? And what exactly happened? Because after 1,200 people were arrested making a ring around the Rose Garden in Washington a year ago, President Obama said he was putting off the construction but then agreed to the—that lower part that goes through Texas to be built.

DARYL HANNAH: Right, the southern leg of the Keystone XL was fast-tracked, but it was sort of done under cover, because from then on the Keystone XL got very little press, and most people just assumed that the decision had been postponed until after some environmental review and, of course, after the elections. But you have to remember that both the president and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have had TransCanada’s chief lobbyist running a high part of their campaign efforts. You know, the director of President Obama’s campaign used to be TransCanada’s chief lobbyist, and Hillary Clinton’s deputy campaign director is now their chief lobbyist. So there’s a very—a very comfortable relationship. So, very few people have any doubt that the whole pipeline was going to be approved. And I think it’s important that we all stand up for our natural living systems, our life support systems, and get this back in the conversation so people know that it’s happening, so our rights aren’t trampled.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to give Susan Scott the last word. You’re a landowner there, your land taken by eminent domain. Your thoughts on this action that’s taking place today and whether you think you can be successful, Susan?

SUSAN SCOTT: Well, I’m certainly hoping that we’re successful, because, like I said before, our lives and grandchildren’s lives and every—they’re all at stake here. They’re all at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Susan Scott is a landowner where the XL pipeline will run. She says she regrets accepting the tens of thousands of dollars TransCanada gave her for access to her property, because she says it was against her will, that they were taking her property anyway by eminent domain. And we’ve been joined by Ron Seifert. Ron Seifert is spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade coalition, joining us from Wood County, Texas, which is about 15 miles from the site. Today, another mass protest is planned. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Daryl Hannah, of course, with us, actor and activist. She was arrested right there in Texas, in Winnsboro, for protesting the XL pipeline. Stay with us.

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