Last year, when president Obama approved the southern leg of Keystone XL – which will run 435 miles from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries near Houston – he unwittingly unleashed the Tar Sands Blockade, a loose but relentless coalition of environmental activists and landowners angered by TransCanada's seizure of their property. "We see ourselves as people who are acting in an emergency capacity," says Ramsey, a 29-year-old Texan and former Green Party organizer with indigenous roots who interrupted a pipeline conference in January by locking himself to the stage. "This fight will be very intense, and it will be very polarizing."
Dedicated to disrupting 'business as usual,' the Tar Sands group does not shy away from putting their bodies on the line – members have locked their necks to excavators in Oklahoma, sealed themselves inside pipe segments in Winona, Texas, and stormed TransCanada's Houston offices. In one of the group's most dramatic operations, activists staged a tree-sit in a forested piece of private property in east Texas that had been claimed for the pipeline route over the objections of the landowner. After a three-month standoff, TransCanada re-routed the pipeline around the blockade.
The group has raised enough of a ruckus to draw a legal attack from TransCanada, and the activists are now barred from company property in Texas and Oklahoma. So they've shifted their attention to training other groups and to action against partners like TD Bank, one of TransCanada's top shareholders, and Valero, a petrochemical giant that plans to refine bitumen transported in the pipeline.
Beyond, blockaders are drawing attention to the environmental racism they say is endemic along the pipeline route. "The communities that bear the brunt of pollution caused by oil sands development are poor people of color," says a blockader called Rue, who organizes in Manchester, a predominantly Latino Houston neighborhood ringed by refineries. "We need people power, and that's why we're using direct action," Rue explains. "I'm sick of people trying to appeal to the President's moral compass on Keystone – it's not going to happen."