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Judge temporarily halts Keystone XL pipeline in Texas

December 11, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Crews work on the Keystone XL pipeline near Winona, Texas.
Crews work on the Keystone XL pipeline near Winona, Texas. (Sarah A. Miller / The Tyler…)

HOUSTON -- A Texas judge has temporarily stopped oil company TransCanada from building a pipeline designed to carry tar sands oil from Canada through eastern portions of the state to the Gulf Coast.

The decision came after Michael Bishop, 64, a retired paramedic and chemist in East Texas, filed a lawsuit arguing that TransCanada lied to him and other landowners, promising that the Keystone XL pipeline would transport crude oil, not tar sands oil.

"What they're calling tar sands oil is not oil by anyone's definition," Bishop told The Times, adding that he's worried the pipeline's proposed contents might contaminate his land. "I'm very concerned about a leak. They need to pull the permit, go back and re-register this on the federal level as a hazardous-material pipeline and see if they can get it permitted then."

Texas County Court at Law Judge Jack Sinz signed the temporary restraining order and injunction against TransCanada on Friday, finding sufficient cause to stop work on the pipeline for two weeks. The injunction went into effect Tuesday, and the next hearing in the case is set for Thursday, court staff told The Times.

Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, told The Times that courts have already ruled that tar sands oil is a form of crude oil. He said TransCanada had not received a copy of the lawsuit in connection with Bishop's case, but that the company plans to seek an expedited hearing to address the injunction, which will not delay the project, due to be completed late next year.

"Under Texas law, TransCanada has been granted the legal authority to construct this pipeline. Construction has commenced on the property that is the subject of the temporary restraining order and the product the Gulf Coast Pipeline will transport is crude oil," Howard said in a statement sent to The Times on Tuesday.

Environmentalists have converged on East Texas to protest the pipeline's construction, arguing that if it leaks or spills, tar sands oil could cause dangerous contamination. Groups such as Tar Sands Blockade have protested at construction sites and highlighted the cases of landowners, including Bishop and Eleanor Fairchild, an East Texas great-grandmother arrested after a protest with actress Daryl Hannah on her property in October.

The Keystone XL pipeline project has provoked protests in several states, and is still facing significant challenges.

President Obama encouraged construction of a portion of the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas, but rejected a presidential permit for construction earlier this year, suggesting that the company reroute the pipeline to avoid areas in Nebraska that environmentalists argue should be protected. Howard said the company has proposed a new route for that portion of the pipeline and was awaiting approval from state officials.

Many Texas landowners have gone to court to try to fight the company's land condemnations, which they argue have allowed TransCanada to seize land to build the pipeline without the owners' consent. In February, a judge briefly stopped work on the pipeline in northeastern Texas due to archaeological artifacts on the property where it was being built. But the judge later ruled work could resume.

Bishop, a libertarian former Marine, initially fought the company's attempt to condemn his land -- 20 acres in the town of Douglass, about 160 miles north of Houston -- but eventually settled with the company a month ago because he could not afford the hefty lawyers' fees of more than $10,000.

He said he contacted environmental groups, but no one would help him bring a lawsuit against the company. So he bought a law book and decided to proceed by himself, filing suit in Austin against the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that oversees pipelines. He argued that it failed to properly investigate the Keystone XL pipeline and protect groundwater, public health and safety.

"I'm fighting for the little guy out here who can't fight for himself," Bishop said. "They can put you through the financial wringer. But in the end, we will prevail."

He said he's hoping that he not only succeeds in his case, but that others join in.

"If I prevail in this suit, this is going to open the door for every landowner from Canada down to the refineries,” to sue the company, he said, "And I don't think TransCanada can handle that."

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