Keystone protesters pay a high price for dangling in Texas trees

 

Austin, Texas

Protesters sitting in trees or blocking equipment used to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline are learning that environmental activism can be a ticket to lengthy jail time in East Texas.

Matthew Almonte, Glen Collins and Isabel Brooks landed in jail in Tyler on Dec. 3, charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass, resisting arrest and illegal dumping, following efforts to stop work on the TransCanada pipeline. Each has asked for a reduction in the $65,000 bond that must be posted to get out pending trial, without success.

The trio joined more than 30 others arrested since October near Tyler and Nacogdoches as they tried to halt work on the $7.6 billion pipeline that would bring products of Alberta tar sands to Houston-area refineries. President Obama blocked the northern U.S. leg, citing environmental risks in Nebraska. An updated review of a revised route may be released in days. The southern end runs from Oklahoma through Texas.

"This is the front line where the climate debate comes onto the ground and you can come over and kick it," said Eddie Scher, a Sierra Club spokesman. The Washington-based group calls itself the largest, most effective U.S. environmental advocate. "There isn't an inch of space between us and the blockaders."

Dozens of mostly 20-something activists have pitched tents on a ranch outside Nacogdoches, a city near the site of the state's first oil well. The camp provides a staging area for protests, which have included perching in trees on the route and locking people to construction equipment.

"Gangs of tree sitters who trespass and defecate on landowners' property don't understand Texas values and culture," Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said in an October essay on his website, calling the protesters "a bunch of out-of-state, self-appointed eco-anarchists."

No state elected officials have lent public support to the protests, which, if successful, may curb the energy boom in Texas, the nation's biggest oil producer. Blocking interstate pipelines would threaten the economic viability of Houston refineries, which support thousands of jobs, Tom Zabel, a TransCanada lawyer, said in an Oct. 4 court hearing.

At least five groups are fighting the Keystone route across their property, while about 95 percent of landowners favor the project for financial reasons, said John Johnson, a rancher in Douglass who has leased acreage to accommodate the pipeline.

Pipeline protesters are a small minority and are the type of people who always are unhappy about something, Johnson said. "I think the pipeline has been fair in its dealings."

The Keystone project became a cause celebre last year among supporters of environmental activists, who say extracting oil from tar sands releases three times more carbon dioxide than conventional drilling and worsens global warming. Actress Daryl Hannah was charged with criminal trespass and resisting arrest during an Oct. 4 pipeline protest in Wood County, near Tyler. Hannah, 52, spent less than six hours in jail before being released on $4,500 bond, court records show.

Hannah protested in support of Eleanor Fairchild, 78, who was also arrested Oct. 4 on charges of trespassing on land she leases to TransCanada. Fairchild has owned the spread since 1993 with her late husband, Ray, a former senior vice president of international exploration at Hunt Oil, a Dallas energy company.

The much higher bail amounts set for Almonte, Collins and Brooks, by a judge in Smith County, a two-hour drive east of Dallas, has raised questions of fairness.

"If they've been charged with misdemeanors and don't have prior criminal records, $65,000 bond is ridiculously high," said Brandon Baade, a criminal defense lawyer in Tyler.

TransCanada, which says on its website it expects to win approval for the northern leg early next year, has consistently prevailed in court over opponents to the southern section of the 2,151-mile (3,460-kilometer) pipeline. Output from Canada's tar sands, currently 1.5 million barrels a day, is forecast to double by 2020. Keystone will also carry crude from North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas.

"You have just about every mainstream NGO speaking about game over for the planet if this pipeline is built," said Ron Seifert, a blockade spokesman, referring to nongovernmental organizations. "There is a disconnect between that rhetoric and the willingness to take aggressive action like the Tar Sands Blockade is doing."

Grace Cagle, 22, started organizing the east Texas blockade while studying for a degree in biology at the University of North Texas in Denton. She graduated in May.

Cagle spent 16 days in a tree house 80 feet off the ground on property leased to TransCanada. After coming down Oct. 17, she was arrested on a criminal trespass charge and spent 17 hours in jail before being released on a $1,500 bond.

Protesters "are doing this with full knowledge that they are breaking the law," Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said. "Their goal is to get publicity or raise money."

Cagle counts it as a small victory that the stand of trees remain, with at least three protesters still aloft. The tree blockade is ending while protesters focus on other sections of the pipeline, Seifert said Wednesday in an e-mailed statement.

"A real special ecosystem is still standing because of the actions we took," said Cagle, who grew up in suburban Dallas. "There we were able to stop them."

While he didn't know what would become of the trees, Howard said, TransCanada hasn't changed its route in the area.

Some local residents admire the passion displayed by protesters and said they're frustrated that county commissioners and others in Nacogdoches won't discuss the pipeline's effects, said Vicki Baggett, who helped organize an anti-Keystone group called NacSTOP. County commissioners got a TransCanada report in October 2010 and haven't met with opponents, said Keith Bradford, an assistant county attorney.

After learning TransCanada money backed an annual blueberry festival put on by a local chamber of commerce, NacSTOP plans to match the donation next year, Baggett said.

"We don't have that same legitimacy with the powers that be in town," said Baggett, who has operated a tree-service company with her husband for 22 years. "Money talks."

Protesters are getting support and supplies from Austin Heights Baptist Church, formed in the 1960s in Nacogdoches by opponents of racial segregation, said Kyle Childress, pastor of the congregation. A dozen or more protesters now attend its Sunday morning service, he said.

"Swimming against the stream is often a pretty good indication that you are practicing your faith," Childress said. "Many of these kids have sold everything they own except what's in their backpacks to come here. Some of them haven't had a bath in a month. I think what they are doing is extraordinary."

Protesters who remain in the Nacogdoches camp are inviting activists to a training seminar starting Jan. 3, Cagle said. Organizers want to find indoor accommodations soon as temperatures fall near freezing at night, she said.

Most of any monetary support is used to post bail for those jailed, Cagle said.

Almonte and Collins were arrested after barricading themselves inside unlaid pipe on a section near Winona. Brooks was filming them when authorities arrested her, she said.

Almonte, 21, said the only other time he has been locked up stemmed from his participation in an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. Brooks said she's a newcomer to jail. Collins couldn't be reached for comment on his experience.

"All you do in jail is sleep and eat and then wait to eat and watch TV," said Lizzy Alvarado, 20, a cinematography major at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches who spent 28 hours in the trees before she was ordered to descend, and then was arrested. "Going to jail was part of what I wanted to do."

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