Seven years ago, when Texas native David Daniel purchased 20 acres tucked away in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the carpenter and builder believed he had found the perfect out-of-the-way place to raise a family. There were plentiful creeks and springs on his cozy parcel, which held stands of old growth and dense thickets typical of the riparian bottomlands that make the region a hotspot for biodiversity. But around the time he was putting the finishing touches on his dream home, about 100 miles east of Dallas, a neighbor called to let Daniel know he’d had some unannounced visitors on his property. The alleged trespassers, it turned out, were surveyors from TransCanada, which wanted to route its controversial 1,700-mile Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the Gulf Coast across his land.
After being threatened with court action and eminent domain, Daniel eventually entered into an agreement to allow an easement across his homestead. He launched a grassroots group called Stop Texas Oilsands Pipeline (STOP), and last summer traveled to Washington D.C., where he and hundreds of other TransCanada protestors were arrested. “As far as I’m concerned, what we’re getting is dirty money,” says Daniel, who is considering whether to take the pipeline company to court. “I moved out here for the privacy. This is not what I ever wanted.”
Environmental activists were heartened this past winter when the White House rejected the pipeline over concerns about the Ogallala Aquifer and Sandhills groundwater in Nebraska. But then, in February, while TransCanada was drawing up a new route from Alberta to Oklahoma, President Barack Obama announced his support for a planned 485-mile spur of the Keystone XL Pipeline that would carry more than 700,000 barrels of crude oil daily from Cushing, Oklahoma, to refineries on the Texas coast. This southern route would cross 17 Texas counties, spanning dozens of rivers and streams, including major waterways such as the Neches, Red, Angelina, and Sabine rivers, as well as the massive Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which provides drinking water for more than 10 million Texans. Of additional concern is what a spill might do to the wildlife-rich Big Thicket National Preserve, nearby waterways, and forests inhabited by endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker. For activists and environmentalists, the Texas deal seems like going back to square one.
Daniel is not the only Texas landowner upset by what’s now known as the Gulf Coast Pipeline Project, which could begin construction as early as this summer. Rancher Julia Trigg Crawford has made headlines from coast to coast for standing up to TransCanada.
According to TransCanada spokesman Jim Prescott, the Gulf Coast pipeline would eventually be connected to the rest of the proposed Keystone XL, enabling the company to move some 830,000 barrels, or nearly 350 million gallons, of caustic Canadian crude through East Texas daily. “There’s no reason to build a $14 million pipeline and then accept material that would damage it,” says Prescott, addressing concerns that crude oil extracted from the tar sands is prone to erode pipes and cause leaks.
Yet that’s not the way the locals see it. “The final environmental-impact statement was totally pathetic when it came to water resources,” says Rita Beving, a consultant hired by several tiny East Texas towns, who is skeptical of such claims. “It crosses these drainages many, many times. There is real concern.”
One key issue is the difficulty of cleaning up an accident should one occur. TransCanada has seen multiple leaks in its midwestern operations, including one in North Dakota last year of more than 20,000 gallons of diluted bitumen, the same type of tar sands crude destined for Texas. While these weren’t pipe leaks, the accidents speak to overall concerns about the company. Critics also point to the 2010 Enbridge disaster, which spilled more than a million gallons of crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. And while the pipeline’s planned route generally runs west of the Big Thicket preserve, often called “the biological crossroads of North America” for its biodiversity—the preserve’s species range from remnant stands of longleaf pine to venomous snakes to threatened freshwater mussels—the construction still angers conservationists. “It’s the pipeline from hell,” says Bruce Drury, past president of the nonprofit Big Thicket Association, which supports scientific research and preservation.
Audubon Texas executive director Bob Benson also worries about regional impacts. “The massive footprint and the possibility of spills warrant further investigation and contingency plans for restoration should contamination occur among six river systems the pipeline is proposed to cross in Texas,” he says.
It’s worth noting that East Texas is no stranger to gas and oil development. The Spindletop gusher that launched the Lone Star oil industry at the beginning of the 20th century was located near what would be the terminus of the Gulf Coast pipeline. But thanks to the heavy-handed approach TransCanada has taken with some landowners, even traditionally conservative Texans are coming out in favor of environmental protection as part of a strategy to block the pipeline. “I’d love to see it stopped,” says Mike Hathorn, who manages his family’s 1,200-acre ranch in Wells, south of David Daniel’s place.
“I think it’s bad for the United States, bad for the state of Texas, and bad for the people nearby.
*Mike Hathorn's name was originally spelled incorrectly. It is now correct.