The latest obstacle to the Keystone XL oil pipeline project comes from tea partyers, much to the delight of environmentalists.
Property-rights conservatives, water supply activists and landowners are banding together along the pipeline’s proposed route through Texas, challenging plans to claim land for the proposed pipeline that will run from Canada’s oil sands to Texas’ Gulf Coast.
“Crippling someone’s water supply knows no party line,” said Rita Beving, consultant to the bipartisan East Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission. A Republican mayor and a Democratic city secretary lead the group’s fight against the pipeline.
These local concerns add to the chorus of debate over Keystone XL, which has yet to gain federal approval. This week, Republicans in Congress tried to pass legislation to override President Barack Obama’s recent decision to deny a permit for the project. A broad coalition of liberal and environmental groups sent lawmakers more than 600,000 letters opposing that effort.
But environmentalists on the ground say landowner-led efforts, albeit smaller in scale, may have a better shot at stopping the pipeline.
“I could stand on the street corner and jump up and down as loud as I can. But the environmental message would only go so far,” Ian Davis, a Texas-based Sierra Club activist, told Roll Call.
The environmental group that typically draws Democratic-leaning liberals and is often at odds with conservative causes is coordinating with unusual allies in the Keystone fight. They include Debra Medina, a tea partyer who challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the 2010 Republican primary and won 19 percent of the vote.
“We’ve been doing the environmental bit for years here, and nothing’s caught fire. But what [Medina] is doing has created momentum,” Davis said.
Medina and her fellow tea partyers oppose TransCanada’s use of eminent domain to claim private land for pipeline use, and they say Texas laws don’t protect landowners and city councils in the event of a spill.
Eminent domain has been used for years by government agencies and private companies to build roads and pipelines, as well as parks and environmental protection areas. But a recent Texas Supreme Court decision suggested that landowners may have the legal grounds to challenge companies that use eminent domain.
TransCanada did not respond to requests for comment, but representatives for the company have said that they prefer voluntary agreements with landowners to forceful use of eminent domain. On the company’s website, landowners are promised “fair and equitable compensation for the land easements granted.”
Bill Peacock, vice president of research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said eminent-domain laws skew in favor of companies because landowners have to wage costly court battles to challenge them.
“There’s no such thing as a voluntary agreement with a company or government that has the power to take your property,” Peacock said.
Texas landowner David Daniel said he has experienced that imbalance firsthand. He agreed to lease land to TransCanada but said he was misled about the safety of oil-sands pipelines. He has since launched a group called Stop Tarsands Oil Pipelines to highlight safety concerns arising from the high pressure and unknown chemicals used to extract energy from oil sands.
Daniel’s effort brings together environmentalists and tea partyers he said are concerned about “a foreign company seizing private property for a private project.”
The group also includes apolitical landowners such as Julia Trigg Crawford, who is pursuing legal action against TransCanada to stop the pipeline from going through her land in North Texas.
The alliance between environmentalists and landowners in Texas resembles a broad coalition of activists and farmers that recently convinced Nebraska lawmakers to reroute the pipeline away from an ecologically sensitive aquifer.
“Lifelong Republicans are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with urban tree-huggers,” Malinda Frevert, a spokeswoman for BOLD Nebraska, said of that effort.
Public support for the pipeline remains strong nationally. A recent Rasmussen report found that 56 percent of likely voters support it, while 16 percent are undecided. Industry experts say the project would create much-needed jobs, a view shared by two Texas Republicans, Reps. Louie Gohmert and Jeb Hensarling, whose districts the pipeline would pass through.
“Americans desperately need the 20,000 new jobs and energy security that the Keystone pipeline project would bring,” Hensarling said in a statement.
Rick Perry agreed, writing in a Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed that an approved pipeline “would have provided a shot in the arm for our nation’s uncertain economy.”
Support for the pipeline falls largely along party lines nationally, but Texas landowners insist the issue is not as partisan as it seems. Concerns about property and water contamination from spills raise alarms in rural Texas regardless of political leaning.
“There are so many legitimate black-and-white issues on the table that threaten our lives,” Daniel said.
Daniel’s group has been working closely with We Texans, an advocacy group run by tea partyer Medina, and the bipartisan anti-pipeline commission that recently launched. All three are lobbying state Representatives to hold hearings on the pipeline during the next state legislative session. They said they hope the state government can be swayed to take action if the federal permit goes through.
Medina said tea partyers are prepared to challenge Republican incumbents in primary elections over this issue.
T.J. Fabby is one such contender. He has made the eminent-domain issue a part of his campaign against state Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee. A spokesman for Pitts said the lawmaker doesn’t have a position on the pipeline yet but is a “big-time proponent” of private-property rights.
The Sierra Club’s Davis is counting on that.
“As of now, [state officials] have been hook, line and sinker about oil, as Texans are,” Davis said. “But they’re always worried about their tea party constituents. They don’t want to get primaried.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.