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Texas judge lifts order that halted work on Keystone XL pipeline

December 13, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Michael Bishop, right, is cheered by supporters as he heads into the Nacogdoches County Courthouse on Thursday. Bishop is battling TransCanada, which wants to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline across his land in East Texas.
Michael Bishop, right, is cheered by supporters as he heads into the Nacogdoches… (Andrew D. Brosig / [Nacogdoches]…)

HOUSTON  -- A Texas judge has lifted a temporary restraining order that had stopped oil company TransCanada from building a portion of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline through the eastern part of the state.

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

Texas County Court at Law Judge Jack Sinz lifted the temporary restraining order Thursday morning after a hearing in Nacogdoches.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. TransCanada has yet to secure federal permission to build the vast majority of the route, but already had the go-ahead to build portions of the pipeline through Texas. TransCanada has been purchasing property for the project and, in some instances, condemning land through the power of eminent domain.

Sinz had signed the temporary restraining order, which took effect Tuesday, after finding sufficient cause to stop work on the pipeline for two weeks. But he changed his mind after hearing from TransCanada's attorneys, who argued that Bishop understood what he was doing when he signed off on an easement agreement with the company three weeks ago.

“TransCanada has been open, honest and transparent with Mr. Bishop at all times. We recognize that not everyone will support the construction of a pipeline or other facilities, but we work hard to reach voluntary agreements and maintain good relationships with landowners,” Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “If we didn’t have a good relationship with more than 60,000 landowners across our energy infrastructure network, we wouldn’t be in business.”

Howard added: “Since Mr. Bishop signed his agreement with TransCanada, nothing about the pipeline or the product it will carry has changed. While professional activists and others have made the same claims Mr. Bishop did today, oil is oil.”

Bishop, a libertarian former Marine, had initially fought the company's attempt to condemn the land — 20 acres in the town of Douglass, about 160 miles east of Dallas — but eventually relented “under coercion and duress,” he said, because he could not afford his legal fees. The agreement with TransCanada was for $75,000, but after his lawyer and a Texas land agency took their cuts, Bishop said, he was left with about $3,800.

Bishop represented himself, filing suit first against the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that oversees pipelines. He alleged that the commission failed to properly investigate the pipeline to protect public health and safety. He followed up with the latest lawsuit against TransCanada.

“I’m disappointed, but by the same token a lot of ground was gained today,” Bishop told The Times, adding that the lawsuit drew public attention to the pipeline project.

“This case is far from over,” he said.

Next Wednesday both sides are scheduled to return to the Nacogdoches courthouse for a hearing before Judge Sinz. TransCanada will argue that Bishop should abide by the easement agreement, Howard said. Bishop will argue once more for an injunction to halt construction.

“If I stop them on my property, other landowners are going to sit up and take notice. I look for landowners to start rebelling,” Bishop said.

Other Texas landowners have gone to court and tried, so far unsuccessfully, to fight the company's land condemnations, which they argue have allowed TransCanada to seize land without owners' consent. On Thursday, some opponents of the pipeline protested outside the courthouse in Nacogdoches, toting signs with the words “Toxic tar sands” crossed out.

Environmentalists have converged on East Texas this year 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.

President Obama encouraged construction of the Texas portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, but the administration has declined to approve the rest of the project, suggesting that TransCanada 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.


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