Tar Sands Opposition Escalates: Human Blockade, Tree Sit-In "Village," And Police Violence In Texas Forest

Protest against the controversial Keystone XL “Tar Sands” Pipeline has escalated dramatically in recent days, largely unreported in the national media.

Protesters have established a human blockade in front of the construction path of the pipeline, in an old oak forest outside of Winnsboro, Texas. The confrontation is shaping up to be a defining protest in the growing divide between the powerful fossil fuel industry and an increasingly active anti-fossil-fuel movement.

Since mid-August, fourteen protesters have been arrested for shutting down construction — largely by chaining themselves to heavy equipment, preventing the forest-clearing necessary to lay the pipeline.

Shannon Bebe and Benjamin Franklin (real name), chained to Keystone Pipeline construction equipment, Sept 25, Winnsboro. They were subsequently assaulted by police with choke-holds and pepper spray, as Transcanada personnel stood by and watched, before being taken into custody. (Photo Courtesy Tar Sands Blockade)

Yesterday, however, reaction to the blockade became violent. Two of the protesters, Shannon Bebe and Benjamin Franklin (real name), were confronted by local police who assaulted them with choke holds and pepper spray — while they were in handcuffs. The spokesman for TarSandsBlockade, Ron Siefert, accused Transcanada — the owners and operators of the pipeline — of actively encouraging the violent response, saying:

“TransCanada supervisors encouraged law enforcement to use escalated pain compliance techniques on our blockaders. They stood by and watched while blockaders were effectively tortured. They were handcuffed into stress positions. While they were pepper sprayed and tasered, they were put into chokeholds. They were physically abused all while TransCanada supervisors watched and, when blockaders were removed from the scene and arrested, TransCanada supervisors thanked law enforcement and commended them on a job well done.”

Ms. Bebe and Ms. Franklin were later released on $2,000 bond.

Sept 24, 2012: Work stoppage at Keystone XL Pipeline Construction site, due to blockade (seen here, two protesters chained to equipment).

The blockade, meanwhile, has now grown beyond ‘street-level’ confrontation. On September 24, protesters began a sustained tree sit-in — occupying positions in trees in the direct path of the proposed pipeline. The trees would have to be cut down for construction to proceed. As of this writing, nine protesters are occupying an elaborately constructed “tree village” that includes 80-foot high platforms and a full tree house, connected via zip lines, safety equipment, and “enough food to last for weeks,” according to Seifert.

Scaffolding from ‘tree village’ at the entrance of the Keystone Pipeline construction path, Winnsboro, Texas.
Tar Sands Blockade, Tree Village Scaffolding — 80 feet high. September 2012

“There are over a dozen trees that span the entire pathway of the Keystone pipeline,” said Seifert. “Additionally, there is a scaffolding—a structural wall made of timber—and built along the top of that wall is a catwalk, an additional platform supporting blockaders as well. Between the timber wall and the tree blockade, there are nine different blockaders all dedicated to maintaining their positions and holding out as long as it takes to stop the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all.”

At the time of this writing, Transcanada timber-clearing trucks are reported to be within 20 feet of the protesters in the trees.

Below is a video, shot by one of the protesters, showing the initial destruction of the surrounding trees, close to the present blockade.

As tree-cutting machinery approaches the protesters, there is concern that the violence perpetrated by the police yesterday (with the alleged approval of Transcanada) portends even greater bloodshed. The blockaders, however aware of the dangers, are not backing down.

“Yes, they could murder someone by cutting down the trees they’re sitting in,” said Seifert. “We assume they would not murder blockaders. We’ll have to wait and see what confrontation with TransCanada will look like.”

The ‘tar sands’ oil reserves currently underground in Alberta represent the second-largest known reserves of oil in the world outside of Saudi Arabia. Tar sands oil is considered ‘the dirtiest oil on the planet’, with greater greenhouse gas implications than regularly processed crude. James Hansen, a Phd physicist who directs the NASA Goddard Space Institute, has said that full development of the tar sands oil fields in Alberta will mean “game over for the climate.” The Keystone XL Pipeline — which would transport oil from the fields in Canada down to refineries in Texas and Oklahoma — is a major component behind the full development of the Alberta Tar Sands.

The Winnsboro construction site in Texas — the blockade site — is considered the ‘first leg’ of the extended pipeline, while the U.S. State Department and state legislators across the US continue to review federal and other state-wide permitting applications.

The Pipeline is owned and operated by Transcanada, a Calgary–based oil and gas company. Last year, Transcanada spent over $1.3 million on Washington, DC lobbyists to advance its Keystone Pipeline agenda in the US Congress, which included its effort to “ban the EPA from taking any action relating to, or taking into consideration, the emission of a greenhouse gas to address climate change.”

One of the protesters arrested recently at the blockade in Texas is Doug Grant, a former employee of Exxon.  After his arrest, he posted the following on Facebook:

“Having worked for years for Exxon, I know how enticing it is to want to develop the Alberta Tar Sands, but it’s just wrong; wrong for the folks who live near the surface mines and toxic ponds, wrong for the landowners who are coerced under duress into contracts or taken to court to have their homes stolen from them, and just wrong for the climate.”

The blockaders have vowed to not come down until the pipeline is ‘stopped permanently‘.


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