Why I'm Standing Up to TransCanada's Keystone XL Pipeline
On Oct. 4, in rural east Texas, a 78-year-old great-grandmother, Eleanor Fairchild, was arrested for trespassing on her own property … and I was arrested standing beside her, as we held our ground in the path of earth-moving excavators constructing TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline.
Seems there's showdown in Texas—but, in fact, it's a battle being waged all over the U.S. It's being fought by ordinary citizens of all colors, economic strata and political persuasions—against the world's wealthiest multinational corporations, misinformation and deeply embedded fears. While I'm not a fan of war terminology, in these struggles, war analogies seem to highlight both the crisis at hand and perhaps the solution we seek.
Let's face it, we are in times of great crisis: economic crisis, overpopulation crisis, climate crisis, extinction crisis, water crisis and a humanitarian crisis on so many levels. Energy, and how we create it, is a pivotal issue for many of these crises. It has become increasingly clear that we need to move in a different direction, yet as a species, we humans are uncomfortable with, and resist, change—though we know it is the very nature of life and not only essential, but inevitable.
Scientific findings warn us that a switch to renewable energy is essential if we are to avert disastrous climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. But since scientific findings and the climate crisis have been so successfully politicized—and I loathe politics—I'll leave the horrifying ramifications of the global climate crisis out of this.
No matter what political rhetoric you choose to follow, or what course we choose to take with our energy options, there are things we all can agree on. As the second World Water Forum wisely stated:
"Water is everybody's business."
Clean, regenerative energy could provide a way past peak oil and our detrimental fossil fuel addiction—if we collectively had the will to employ renewables, and addressed the change as urgently as the U.S. did during the second world war when we unleashed our scientific creativity and industrial ingenuity to support the war effort. But there is no escape from peak water. We simply cannot live without uncontaminated water and food.
Since we can't make informed choices without being informed, here is an update on the global water crisis: the International Water Management Institute projects that by 2025, barely 12 years, two-thirds of the world will live under conditions of water scarcity. As Lester Brown from Earth Policy Institute says:
"Scores of countries are over-pumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs … the USDA reports that in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas—three leading grain-producing states, the underground water table has dropped by more than 30 meters. As a result, wells have gone dry on thousands of farms in the southern Great Plains … for fossil aquifers, such as the vast Ogollala under the Great Plains, which do not replenish … depletion would mean the end of agriculture."
Texas was ravaged by drought last year and the majority of the U.S. suffered extreme drought conditions this year. Brown goes on to say:
"The over-pumping of aquifers is occurring in many countries more or less simultaneously. This means that the depletion of aquifers and the resulting harvest cutbacks will come in many countries at roughly the same time. And the accelerating depletion of aquifers means this day may come sooner than expected, creating a potentially unmanageable situation of food scarcity."
The complete Keystone XL pipeline project that is proposed would come down across the border from Alberta through six states—passing right through the Ogallala aquifer—the source of irrigation water for two-thirds of our nation's farms and ranches. The southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was fast-tracked and is now under construction, would cross through the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer that supplies water for agriculture, industry and fresh drinking water to 10-12 million Texans.
Another thing we can all agree on—as even TransCanada admits, it's not a question of "if" there will be spills, but "when." We just can't afford it.
TransCanada represented its product as crude oil, while the House ways and means committee clearly states crude oil does not include shale, oil or tar sands oil. Keystone XL would carry tar sands oil—or bitumen—a highly toxic, corrosive substance filled with proprietary chemicals. Unlike crude oil, tar sands sludge has to be pumped at high pressures and extremely high temperatures to move through pipe.
Even federal safety officials don't know precisely which chemicals are used to mix bitumen and create dilbit. There have been no independent scientific studies exploring the relationship between dilbit and pipeline corrosion.
In mid 2010, the Endbridge Energy pipeline leaked, dumping 843,000 gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo river. The cost to clean it up is expected to exceed $700m. The Keystone I, Keystone XL's predecessor, leaked 12 times in its first year of operation.
Proponents of KXL have made efforts to sell the pipeline to U.S. citizens, greatly exaggerating job opportunities, quoting numbers upward of 50,000, while a Cornell University independent study said it would bring roughly 4,000 temporary jobs. TransCanada has also spent enormous amounts of PR money putting ads on Oprah's network and the like, in an attempt to rebrand itself as "ethical oil", insinuating that the Keystone XL pipeline would ensure America receives its oil from friendly Canada, instead of unstable regions elsewhere in the world.
But the Keystone XL pipeline has been mischaracterized, and the American people have been misled. Portraying the pipeline as a "public use" project carrying crude oil to the U.S., enables the foreign corporation to take U.S. private property through "eminent domain" but for foreign private profit.
With no evidence to support those claims, politicians have jumped on this bandwagon to tout the KXL project as a means to enhance U.S. energy security and energy independence. In fact, in a congressional energy and commerce subcommittee hearing, TransCanada refused to support a requirement that KXL oil be sold in U.S. markets. This oil will be sold, most likely for export, on the open market to the highest bidder, most likely India (which itself manufactured the pipeline) or China. What is evident is that the Keystone XL pipeline is a private profit venture, not a "public use" project that serves the U.S. national interest.
I'll admit we have an uphill battle in fighting a corporation so deeply wedded to the White House (both the president and secretary of state have had TransCanada's chief lobbyists direct their campaign efforts). Many of the large NGOs have even put the KXL battle on the back burner until after the elections. But we, the people, fight on.
So, this is why I stood with Eleanor in front of heavy construction equipment.
Eleanor Fairchild is just one of the brave citizens fighting for our survival. And her story should be told. She made no agreement with TransCanada. They took and bisected her 300-acre farm through a classic example of using eminent domain for corporate, rather than public purposes. Fairchild says that they slashed and burned the old-growth forests on her land, reneging on their promise to set aside the trees for use. They said they would only work until 4 p.m., though they worked through the night.
She says they intimidate her, telling her she's being watched. They have slapped her with a civil lawsuit and are attempting to brand this great-grandmother as an eco-terrorist. But Eleanor Fairchild is not against oil or pipelines; in fact, her late husband was in the oil business for 50 years. She's against tar sands oil. She is against the contamination of our rare and precious water resources, and our soil for growing food.
Make no mistake, we are going through fire. If we just stand there doing nothing, we are going to get burned. But if we accept our ethical responsibility to stand up for each other, and for our life support systems, and if we focus on and work tirelessly for a better future, then that just may be within our reach.
Visit EcoWatch’s KEYSTONE XL page for more related news on this topic.
Photos courtesy of Steven Da Silva.
By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jessica Corbett
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By Julia Conley
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