Club Galvanizes Opposition to Tar Sands Pipeline in Lone Star State
The State Department held hearings on the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline in Austin and Port Arthur, Texas, the last week of September, and Sierra Club activists made their voices heard at both. Above, volunteers at the Austin hearing.
The Keystone XL Pipeline, proposed by TransCanada Corporation, would transport synthetic crude oil from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The project has met with lawsuits and intense opposition from citizens and a broad range of environmental and public interest groups.
The 1,700-mile pipeline would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies groundwater to eight states, including Texas. The Sierra Club has been working on the tar sands campaign in Texas for over a year, and used last week's hearings to shine a spotlight on the issue and mobilize grassroots opposition from around the state.
Port Arthur has stagnated economically for decades, and more than 25 percent of the mostly minority population lives below the poverty line. But the city, already beset with high rates of cancer and asthma due to toxic air pollution from heavy industry, is home to a large portion of U.S. oil refining capacity, and has recently been gearing up with major refinery and petrochemical plant expansions.
Above, anti-pipeline volunteers in Port Arthur. Below, environmental activist and 2011 Goldman Prize winner Hilton Kelly surveys the scene from his neighborhood in West Port Arthur. For the last decade, Kelly has worked to educate and empower community residents and reduce emissions from the eight petrochemical plants and hazardous waste plants in the area.
"We held our own at the Port Arthur hearing, despite TransCanada supporters being bused in from out of state," says Austin-based Sierra Club organizer Ian Davis, "and we outnumbered the opposition at the Austin hearing."
In preparation for the hearings, the Club generated statewide media attention and strengthened its alliances with a broad spectrum of groups including faith leaders, public officials, students, landowners, environmental justice leaders, conservationists—even tea party supporters who oppose the pipeline.
Prior to the Austin hearing, Club staff and volunteers made thousands of phone calls, sent thousands of emails, mailed thousands of flyers, knocked on more than 500 doors, and took out a paid ad in the Austin Chronicle. The Club also organized a press conference right before the hearing started, which was captured by TV cameras and the print media.
"About 500 people attended the hearing, nearly half of them spoke, and a clear majority of speakers opposed the pipeline," says Davis. "The same out-of-state tar sands supporters rode their buses to Austin, but more than 300 of our supporters attended, and our team consisted of real Texans, not just from Austin but around the state."
Davis says the opposition admittedly had a strong showing early in the day, but pipeline opponents rallied by the end of the day and dominated the evening testimony. "Our grassroots rally, featuring syndicated columnist, activist, and author Jim Hightower, drew more than 150 people, and we had so many supporters in the evening that our folks were lined up to speak even after the scheduled 8:00pm hearing deadline," he says.
Adding to the controversy over the Keystone XL Pipeline are recent revelations that the State Department has been working behind the scenes with TransCanada to assure that the project is approved. Read this op-ed by author/activist Bill McKibben from the New York Times.