Reporting from Port Arthur, Texas — Texas has rarely met an oil facility it didn't like. Ever since Spindletop sent a gush of crude 150 feet into the air near here in 1901, Texans have been mostly willing to put up with the spills, smokestack belches and massive refinery vistas that go along with big, fat pots of "Texas tea."
But that was before a Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., came forward with a plan to build a 1,700-mile pipeline to carry heavy, high-pollutant oil from the tar sands under the boreal forests of northern Alberta, across the American heartland, through scenic ranchlands in the piney woods of east Texas and on to refineries near Houston and Port Arthur.
For many in Texas — who are holding meetings, passing out leaflets and hosting neighborhood talks with, of all people, the Sierra Club — the Keystone XL pipeline is a barrel too far.
Warnings that the pipeline could worsen the state's already potent refinery emissions and threaten water supplies have riled up people not normally inclined to cotton to environmentalists; TransCanada's heavy-handed approach to obtaining easements through rural property — a mix of dickering and threats of eminent domain — has populated the Sierra Club's recent meetings with rural residents in denim shirts and silver belt buckles whose political inclinations lean more toward the "tea party" movement than eco-activism.
"Basically, what you're saying is they're going to shove it down our throat, whether we want it or not?" Charles Crouch, a former refinery worker, said at a meeting on the pipeline last month in Lufkin. "That's hard to do in Texas, I'll tell you. We get riled up, and we're going to figure out a way to stop this thing."
Across the state, there have been similar rumblings of petro-rebellion.
"You gotta be kidding!" one man in Tyler shouted when told that the 36-inch pipeline would run hot, corrosive oil through buried steel pipes whose walls are less than half an inch thick.
The State Department is expected to decide soon whether to require additional environmental studies before approving the Keystone XL project, which would run through an aquifer in Nebraska that provides up to 25% of the nation's agricultural irrigation, en route to Texas, where the Environmental Protection Agency has said more documentation is needed on potential worsening of poisonous refinery emissions.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised a "meticulous environmental review," a standard conservationists say can be met only by doing a substantial number of new studies.
A similar pipeline in the $12-billion Keystone system, from Alberta to Oklahoma and on to market hubs in the Midwest, began operating in June. Keystone XL would run 1,660 miles southeast through the same region to Cushing, Okla., then jut south to Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast.
Already, 12 Oklahoma residents who were sued by TransCanada over access to their property are mounting a legal case to question the public benefit of the pipeline. Nebraskans, who staged a protest at the state Capitol this month, have been even more vociferous in opposition.
Even in Texas, dozens of people showed up at each of the Sierra Club meetings across the state in December, and many stayed on afterward to organize letter-writing campaigns and community resistance councils.
"Going into this, we didn't know how Texans would respond. And I've honestly been surprised at how receptive Texans have been," said Ian Davis, senior field organizing manager for the Sierra Club in Houston. "There's just something that the folks down here don't like about a foreign oil pipeline coming through and threatening people with eminent domain, and threatening our lands and our water."
The pipeline fight is somewhat at odds with the war Texas state officials have waged against the new Obama administration regulations on greenhouse gases that scientists say are warming the planet. Texas is decidedly in the global warming doubters' camp.
But for many conservationists, the battle against the Keystone XL project fits squarely in a climate change agenda. It is about stopping extraction of tar sands oil, which they say threatens to devastate Canada's boreal forests and waterways and release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that annual greenhouse gas emissions from transporting and burning oil from the Keystone XL pipeline would be 27 million metric tons a year — or 82% greater than the average crude processed in the U.S.
The agency has urged the State Department to beef up its environmental review, pointedly saying its analysts need to "substantiate" their assertion that emissions won't be significantly worse by burning tar sands oil at Texas refineries. Tar sands, a thick, peanut-butter-like bitumen that is chemically thinned and heated for transport, can contain 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen and five times more lead than conventional crude.