By Jessica Goad
The recent protests against the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline have reached a new height in Texas. On Thursday, Eleanor Fairchild, a 78-year old great-grandmother, was arrested for trespassing after she stood in the path of bulldozers and machinery on her 300-acre ranch outside of Winnsboro, Texas that were tearing down trees to make the way for pipeline construction.
Fairchild, who was joined in her civil disobedience by actress and activist Darryl Hannah, explained her actions in a video saying:
Get off my land. Period. I don’t want tar sands anywhere in the United States. I am mad. This land is my land. It’s been our land since ’83, our home is on it. They are going to destroy the woods, and also they could destroy the springs. It’s devastating, but it also is not very good to have tar sands anywhere in the United States. This is not just about my land, it’s about all of our country. It needs to be stopped.
At issue is the power of eminent domain, which allows the government to seize (for fair compensation) private property without the consent of the owner for projects considered to be for the public use or benefit. Steve Mufson of the Washington Post reported earlier this summer that:
The vast majority of landowners have signed agreements with TransCanada, the pipeline owner. But where necessary, the Calgary, Alberta-based company is busy going to state courts to exercise eminent domain and lining up rights to cross properties throughout the Great Plains
While eminent domain and the laws and statutes surrounding it are complicated, the Keystone XL situation in Texas has come down to whether the pipeline is a common carrier of oil (giving it the right to eminent domain) or a private project (meaning that the company would have to negotiate individually with landowners). Just recently, a judge ruled in favor of TransCanada and granted it eminent domain. As Fairchild refused to sell any of her land to TransCanada and did not sign any contracts, the company was able to use eminent domain and legally have her arrested for trespassing on her own land.
The Washington Post described TransCanada’s general attitude towards landowners fighting pipeline by quoting one of the company’s lawyers who said:
We are not going to have one landowner hold up a multibillion-dollar project that is going to be for the benefit of the public.
The Keystone XL pipeline consists of three legs. The northern and most well-known portion runs from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, and it remains under additional review by the U.S. Department of State because landowners in Nebraska raised serious concerns about its impacts on the Ogallala Aquifer. Construction on the southernmost leg began in August (President Obama directed his administration to “make this project a priority” in March), and a middle leg that is already online runs from Steele City to Cushing.
In addition to Fairchild and Hannah’s arrests, currently a handful of protestors are camped out in a tree house in the path of the pipeline construction. And protestors have been arrested after chaining themselves to heavy machinery over the last few weeks.
Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.