Looking to lessons learned for the upcoming Keystone XL battle

A Tar Sands Blockade activist shows off her banner in Nacogdoches, Texas. (Flickr / Tar Sands Blockade)

A Tar Sands Blockade activist shows off her banner in Nacogdoches, Texas. (Flickr / Tar Sands Blockade)

When Steven DaSilva, a retired high school science teacher and member of the Sierra Club, first learned that the southern portion of a transnational tar sands oil pipeline would be built near his East Texas backyard in Nacogdoches County, he launched a petition drive and letter writing campaign to local politicians asking them to put a stop to it. Now, four years since picking a fight with pipeline builder TransCanada over the construction of the Keystone XL, DaSilva has emerged a changed man. Even though grassroots efforts to halt the project in his region have not succeeded, DaSilva believes the lessons he and other activists learned through their struggle with TransCanada will be useful in the upcoming battle over the pipeline’s northern section.

Knocking on doors to gather signatures back in 2010, DaSilva found that many of his neighbors had never heard of the Keystone XL. Four years later, it has emerged as one of the most contentious political issues in the United States — one that, with the release of a favorable environmental impact statement from the Department of State last Friday, took a step closer toward full completion.

Since all that’s needed to connect the northern portion of the Keystone XL to its source in Alberta, Canada, is a presidential permit, the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress are lobbying President Obama for his stamp of approval. On the other side of the debate, an environmental movement has sprouted up to counter the weight of the oil lobby with mass demonstrations and civil disobedience.

Contrary to the recent findings from the State Department, anti-pipeline activists say that the 830,000 barrels of heavy tar sands crude expected to flow through the pipeline every day once it is completed will greatly increase carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change. Much to their disappointment, the southern portion of the pipeline — which runs near DaSilva’s backyard — was completed last year and became operational on January 22, delivering oil from Cushing, Okla., to Nederland and Houston, Texas.

“I hope we can win the fight on the northern leg, but even if we do it’s half a victory at best,” said author and activist Bill McKibben.

McKibben’s group 350.org has helped put the Keystone XL pipeline under scrutiny through a series of national rallies in front of the White House. Following the release of the State Department’s report, the group organized more than 200 vigils across the country on Monday evening.

“Right now, we’re in the snows of New York,” McKibben said after addressing the crowd at a vigil in Manhattan on Monday evening. “We might have to be in the snows of Nebraska if they decide to build [the rest of] this thing.”

Down in Texas, Steven DaSilva’s entire outlook on politics, like that of many environmentalists involved in the movement, has been completely altered over the course of opposing the pipeline. Before getting involved in the scrap against TransCanada in 2010, DaSilva had limited his advocacy to teaching teenagers in his classroom to respect and appreciate their environment.

“I felt like I was doing what I could do to educate future generations,” he said. “But then, getting involved, I began to realize how naive I was.” The more DaSilva learned about tar sands and TransCanada, the more he immersed himself in activism. And the more active he became, the more frustrating the political process appeared to him.

“I realized that those elected officials who I originally thought were responsible to the people have neglected that responsibility,” Da Silva recalled.

In 2012, when work began near DaSilva’s house, he decided to join a ragtag group of young environmentalists from around the country who had begun flocking to Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma to organize with families and landowners living along the pipeline’s route. Calling themselves Tar Sands Blockade, they put tremendous effort into blocking construction by chaining themselves to heavy machinery, sitting in trees slated to be plowed over and even crawling into a segment of the Keystone XL pipeline itself.

DaSilva picked up a camera and began documenting the direct actions.

“I was impressed by the fact that there were so many younger individuals going out on a limb,” DaSilva remembered, “giving up their early years to stand up to an instrument of climate change, basically putting their lives on hold to fight this battle.”

Not all of those who took part in Tar Sands Blockade actions were millennials, however, and police in East Texas did not discriminate in their use of force. One particular moment has burned itself into DaSilva’s mind. On October 19, 2012, an elderly friend of his was among those pepper-sprayed during a tree-sit in Cherokee County.

“We’re talking about a nonviolent protest,” DaSilva said. “To see local law enforcement basically responding to the wishes of a major corporation was really enlightening. These individuals are sworn to protect the public. But here you have violence being perpetrated on peaceful protests.”

Despite the heavy-handed reciprocity activists received, their civil disobedience actions helped delay the pipeline and increase costs to TransCanada. Tar Sands Blockade’s savvy media team made sure that news of the direct actions spread through social media and occasionally appeared on major news outlets. In turn, the high-profile acts of dissent helped galvanize the wider national movement against the Keystone XL and fossil fuels in general.

“There’s a lot to be said for local organizing,” DaSilva explained. “Although national NGOs can help in terms of sharing resources.”

He and other East Texas activists have also looked beyond their state. After the Pegasus Pipeline spilled 7,000 barrels of tar sands crude into the town of Mayflower, Ark., last March, Tar Sands Blockade helped orchestrate a community exchange between Mayflower residents and citizens of Gun Barrel City, Texas, who are daily forced to breath the hydrocarbon-packed air surrounding the refineries where oil from Pegasus and other pipelines is delivered. Members of both communities shared stories about the toxic effects of the oil. DaSilva wants to build more such alliances, envisaging a grassroots network of frontline communities where fossil fuels are extracted, transported and refined.

“Although we did a lot of our work by the seat of our pants,” he said, “I think we’ve created a model that others can learn from.”

The release of the State Department’s environmental impact report has initiated a 30-day public comment period ending March 7. Other governmental departments will also weigh in. Sixty days later, the White House will issue a draft “National Interest Determination.” Should the draft find the Keystone XL beneficial to national interests, a coalition of groups including Rainforest Action Network and Credo Action, the political arm of the cellphone company Credo Mobile, are planning a series of nonviolent sit-ins that will target TransCanada and investors in the pipeline. The coalition has organized more than 77,000 people to sign an online pledge to resist the pipeline — although far fewer have yet been integrated into its organizing drive.

Those interested in winning the second half of the battle against the Keystone XL will have their work cut out for them in the weeks and months ahead. Their success or failure could well hinge on the roots they grow nationally.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.