Learning Lessons for Next Keystone XL Battle

Peter Rugh Feb 26, 2014

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 asking local politicians 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.

See also: Seven Reasons to Oppose Keystone XL

Dear State Department

The 30-day public comment period on the Keystone XL pipeline closes March 7. Comments can be submitted via, where the Keystone pipeline is a trending topic, or mailed directly to:

U.S. Department of State
Bureau of Energy Resources, Room 4843
Attn: Keystone XL Public Comments
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

Following the end of public comment, the State Department has 60 days to consider comments from other government agencies and make a recommendation on Keystone XL to President Obama, who has the final decision.

Building Resistance

More than 77,000 people have signed an online pledge to resist the Keystone XL pipeline by participating in “peaceful, dignified civil disobedience” if the State Department signs off on the project this spring and forwards the project to the President for his final approval. The potential civil resistence campaign is being organized by a number of groups, including, Rainforest Action Network and the Hip-Hop Caucus.

“If tens of thousands of people stand up as President Obama mulls his final decision and commit to participate in civil disobedience if necessary,” the organizers wrote in an online statement, “we can convince the White House that it will be politically unfeasible to go forward.”

Keystone XL opponents say they will take aim at a wide array of symbolic targets: State Department offices, TransCanada corporate offices, Obama Organizing for Action meetings, banks that are financing tar sands oil development and communities and areas ravaged by Superstorm Sandy and along the pipeline route.

Indigenous groups from across the Great Plains and the West have also vowed to resist the “black snake,” which is slated to pass through traditional Lakota Nation lands in South Dakota.

“It is an epic project, it will have an epic response from the tribal people,” Gary Dorr of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

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He is not alone. Tens of thousands of people have been brought into the fight against the Keystone XL. Driven by large rallies on the National Mall organized by large green NGOs like, the pipeline has become an item of mainstream debate and one that, with the release of a favorable environmental impact statement from the Department of State on January 31, took a step closer toward completion. Even though grassroots efforts to halt the project in DaSilva’s region have not succeeded, he believes the lessons he learned will be useful in the upcoming battle over the pipeline’s northern section.

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.

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, Oklahoma, 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 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 the evening of February 3.

“Right now, we’re in the snows of New York,” McKibben said after addressing the crowd at a vigil in Manhattan on February 3. “We might have to be in the snows of Nebraska if they decide to build [the rest of] this thing.”

Changing Views

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,” DaSilva 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, Arkansas, last March, Tar Sands Blockade helped orchestrate a community exchange between Mayflower residents and citizens of Gun Barrel City, Texas, who are forced to breathe 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.”

Though the fate of the northern section of the Keystone XL might be up in the air, Obama has already beefed up America’s oil and gas infrastructure over the course of his presidency, building, as he remarked in 2012, “enough pipeline to encircle Earth and then some.” The network DaSilva and others are seeking to build, of communities connected through this new web of fossil fuel infrastructure, could prove a substantial force to reckon with, whether or not the Keystone XL is built.

That doesn’t mean the outcome of the struggle over Keystone XL isn’t crucial. Politically, it would turn the tide against the fossil fuel industry, which is used to getting what it wants. In terms of our the impact on climate change, it means that less tar sands oil — which, according to the State Department’s report, is 10 to 17 times more potent than conventional crude — will be burned.

“It’s expensive oil,” said McKibben. “It’s hard to get out of the ground. It’ll only be extracted if there are cheap ways to get it to market. … If they don’t get this pipeline built, further expansion of the tar sands is probably not going to happen.”

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 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 been integrated into its organizing drive. They’ll be staging a series of direct action trainings around the country in the coming weeks and months that they hope will draw more people in.

Some activists have expressed dismay at Credo’s involvement, pointing out that it is the political arm of the cell phone company Credo Mobile. Yet Credo and other large NGOs opposing the pipeline are relying on activists on the ground to build for the direct actions. The success or failure of the campaign could well hinge on the strength of community resistance going forward.

An earlier version of this article was published at

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