Direct action, arrests hold up another day of Keystone construction

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By Andrew Oxford

Rarely is there as much excitement in Wells, Texas, as there was on Monday. The Tar Sands Blockade continued its campaign against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline extension in East Texas with a day of protests and disruptions at two constructions sites outside the small town southwest of Nacogdoches.

The direct action came amid speculation that President Barack Obama will once and for all sign off on the pipeline planned to run from the Texas Gulf Coast to Alberta, Canada. Construction is well underway despite opposition within the President’s own party that scuttled an earlier application by pipeline operator TransCanada. Protests have targeted this particular pipeline because it would open for development and export huge fields of tar sands in Canada that release several times the greenhouse gases of traditional crude and the spills cause significantly more damage than traditional oil and gas. Noted NASA scientist James Hansen has stated that if the Canadian tar sands are exhumed and used that it is "game over" for the planet. Opponents of the project rallied at the White House on Sunday, but the confidence from the pipeline’s backers suggest it is a done deal. So are the college-aged kids chaining themselves to the machinery the only thing standing in the way of Valero’s big investment? Activists hope not. “Valero, Chevron — we need to target these investors,” said Grace Cagle, a demonstrator with the Tar Sands Blockade. “We need solidarity actions everywhere.” Several activists said they hoped the campaign would expand to pressure other corporate and institutional stakeholders. In many ways, it already has. The Tar Sands Blockade coordinated with activists around the world on more than 40 demonstrations against the Keystone XL in the week leading up to Monday’s action in Wells. One woman from New Orleans said she felt the issue should resonate more broadly as the petroleum industry turns toward unconventional extraction such as the tar sands in Alberta and fracking in Texas. “What industry is resorting to is exotic extraction,” said Ron Seifert, spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade. “Instead of going after crude oil they’re going after tar sands. Connecting communities at the center of exotic extraction is a priority, according to Seifert. The pine forests which served as a backdrop to Monday’s protests also seemed to be a prescient reminder that the message of the demonstrators is far from the current discourse in Washington. Monday morning, crews working to clear a broad path for the pipeline through miles of forest arrived at one site near Wells to find four demonstrators chained to two pieces of heavy equipment. Another crew found three activists camped out more than 50 feet up trees in the path of the pipeline. Work at the two sites was suspended for the day while Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies extracted and arrested the four young men chained to machinery. A few miles away, sheriff’s deputies hired a cherry picker to remove the tree sitters. The machinery first had to pass a crowd of more than 100 protesters who had gathered to support the Tar Sands Blockade. In an effort to buy time for the tree sitters, demonstrators poured into the road and swarmed the cherry picker. As a few protesters jumped up and down on the back of the truck and others stood in its path, a sheriff’s deputy lept from the cab to pepper spray the crowd. A 75-year-old woman from Nacogdoches was pepper sprayed in the melee as the truck slowly rolled onto the site. “It was surprising we did not have anyone seriously injured,” said Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. “It was very disappointing to see the use of force.” By 2:15 p.m., all three tree sitters were in custody with each facing two felony charges. The tree sit did not have the longevity of the Winnsboro encampment that marked the blockade's 57th day Monday. Nevertheless, activists saw value in the direct action. “More pipeline didn’t get built today,” Regan said.

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