Texas has rarely met an oil facility it didn't like. Ever since Spindletop sent a gush of crude 150 feet into the air near here in 1901, Texans have been mostly willing to put up with the spills, smokestack belches and massive refinery vistas that go along with big, fat pots of "Texas tea."
But that was before a Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., came forward with a plan to build a 1,700-mile pipeline to carry heavy, high-pollutant oil from the tar sands under the boreal forests of northern Alberta, across the American heartland, through scenic ranchlands in the piney woods of east Texas and on to refineries near Houston and Port Arthur.
For many in Texas — who are holding meetings, passing out leaflets and hosting neighborhood talks with, of all people, the Sierra Club — the Keystone XL pipeline is a barrel too far.
Warnings that the pipeline could worsen the state's already potent refinery emissions and threaten water supplies have riled up people not normally inclined to cotton to environmentalists; TransCanada's heavy-handed approach to obtaining easements through rural property — a mix of dickering and threats of eminent domain — has populated the Sierra Club's recent meetings with rural residents in denim shirts and silver belt buckles whose political inclinations lean more toward the "tea party" movement than eco-activism.
"Basically, what you're saying is they're going to shove it down our throat, whether we want it or not?" Charles Crouch, a former refinery worker, said at a meeting on the pipeline last month in Lufkin. "That's hard to do in Texas, I'll tell you. We get riled up, and we're going to figure out a way to stop this thing."
Across the state, there have been similar rumblings of petro-rebellion.
"You gotta be kidding!" one man in Tyler shouted when told that the 36-inch pipeline would run hot, corrosive oil through buried steel pipes whose walls are less than half an inch thick.
The State Department is expected to decide soon whether to require additional environmental studies before approving the Keystone XL project, which would run through an aquifer in Nebraska that provides up to 25% of the nation's agricultural irrigation, en route to Texas, where the Environmental Protection Agency has said more documentation is needed on potential worsening of poisonous refinery emissions.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised a "meticulous environmental review," a standard conservationists say can be met only by doing a substantial number of new studies.
A similar pipeline in the $12-billion Keystone system, from Alberta to Oklahoma and on to market hubs in the Midwest, began operating in June. Keystone XL would run 1,660 miles southeast through the same region to Cushing, Okla., then jut south to Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast.
Already, 12 Oklahoma residents who were sued by TransCanada over access to their property are mounting a legal case to question the public benefit of the pipeline. Nebraskans, who staged a protest at the state Capitol this month, have been even more vociferous in opposition.
Even in Texas, dozens of people showed up at each of the Sierra Club meetings across the state in December, and many stayed on afterward to organize letter-writing campaigns and community resistance councils.
"Going into this, we didn't know how Texans would respond. And I've honestly been surprised at how receptive Texans have been," said Ian Davis, senior field organizing manager for the Sierra Club in Houston. "There's just something that the folks down here don't like about a foreign oil pipeline coming through and threatening people with eminent domain, and threatening our lands and our water."
The pipeline fight is somewhat at odds with the war Texas state officials have waged against the new Obama administration regulations on greenhouse gases that scientists say are warming the planet. Texas is decidedly in the global warming doubters' camp.
But for many conservationists, the battle against the Keystone XL project fits squarely in a climate change agenda. It is about stopping extraction of tar sands oil, which they say threatens to devastate Canada's boreal forests and waterways and release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that annual greenhouse gas emissions from transporting and burning oil from the Keystone XL pipeline would be 27 million metric tons a year — or 82% greater than the average crude processed in the U.S.
The agency has urged the State Department to beef up its environmental review, pointedly saying its analysts need to "substantiate" their assertion that emissions won't be significantly worse by burning tar sands oil at Texas refineries. Tar sands, a thick, peanut-butter-like bitumen that is chemically thinned and heated for transport, can contain 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen and five times more lead than conventional crude.
Canadian oil operators have said they have cleaned up and reduced the carbon footprint of their extraction processes, and they promise further improvement. Meanwhile, Port Arthur refineries already have been gearing up to process a variety of heavier, sour crude not only from Canada but from parts of the Middle East, Venezuela and Mexico.
"I don't think we've projected any additional emissions due to Canadian crude, because we're already processing heavy grades of crude at Port Arthur," said Bill Day, spokesman for Valero Energy Corp., which has announced plans to process additional Canadian oil.
One of the big issues raised at organizing meetings here is safety, and warnings about the possibility of ruptures and leaks.
In July, a 41-year-old pipeline carrying Canadian tar sands oil in Michigan spilled up to 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan. Enbridge Inc., which operates that pipeline, also reported a spill of about 126,000 gallons near Neche, N.D., in January, and 50,000 gallons in rural Wisconsin in 2007.
TransCanada initially sought permission to operate Keystone XL at pressures higher than those normally approved in the U.S. but backed off in the face of widespread concerns, leaving the door open to reapply for the high-pressure permit once the pipeline established a safety record.
"We're meeting all of the guidelines that have been put in place by the U.S. government," said Terry Cunha, spokesman for the pipeline company.
Cunha played down concerns that the tar sands oil is inherently riskier to ship than other oil.
"We are just a pipe builder; we are not the owner of any crude oil, but the oil we're shipping is meeting all of the guidelines put in place. It's similar and comparable to oil you'd find coming from California, the Middle East, Venezuela — this oil is no different," he said.
Neil Carman, a former state refinery inspector who now works for the Sierra Club, warned at a community meeting in Houston that the higher sulfur content of Canadian tar sands oil could elevate the risk of release of deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.
But it's the manners of the Canadians that stick most in the craw of Texans. At many of the Texas meetings, landowners complained that surveyors for TransCanada have shown up on their property unannounced, followed by land agents pushing them to sign easements.
David Daniel, a Winnsboro carpenter, said TransCanada notified him it would need to cut down most of the trees in the wooded valley that lies at the heart of his property in east Texas.
"I asked them, what are the chances of this thin-wall, high-pressure pipeline rupturing, compared to other pipelines? They said there's no study available — we won't know till the line has been in service for many years. So I'm a lab rat on my own property," Daniel said.
Daniel signed after TransCanada threatened to take him to court, and after pipeline workers showed up at his door to ask him why he was threatening their jobs — apparently convinced that the project will create more than 50,000 "spinoff" jobs, as a study promoted by TransCanada predicts.
Daniel immediately started organizing, urging his neighbors to put out yard signs, and meeting with local tea party activists, who were outraged. "Our local newspaper is extremely conservative. A foreign company seizes an American's private property. They jumped all over it," Daniel said. "Then people started getting interested in the safety issues."
Barbara Jean Shuttlesworth of Arp said the pipeline would traverse the 20 acres she and her husband bought years ago to build their future home. They no longer want to live there.
"They tell you, you can either take this money we're offering you, or they're going to take your land anyway. Because they're going to do what they're going to do," she said. "My husband works in the oil industry. I have family members who have been in the oil business for years. This is not the first time we've seen a pipeline. But the way they're doing this, it really makes you feel helpless. It renders you helpless when they put eminent domain out there."
So far, nine of the state's 32 members of Congress are on record supporting the pipeline. In a state already crisscrossed by more than 77,000 miles of utility pipelines, supporters argue, it would be foolish to stand in the way of a project that will help secure reliable energy supplies from a close ally of the U.S. — one that already is the nation's biggest oil supplier.
"Southeast Texas is no stranger to pipeline projects and has operated them safely for years. Pipelines are a far safer way to transport crude, eliminating the greater potential for accidents by tanking it from overseas," Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican whose district includes the Port Arthur region, said in a statement.
"We can continue to rely on unfriendly foreign nations, or we can work with our longtime allies to the north to supply over 1.4 million barrels of oil a day," he said.
Even among many here with long ties to the environmental movement, the economic argument, as it always has in Texas, wins the day.
Hilton Kelley, director of the Community In-Power and Development Assn. and one of Port Arthur's most prominent environmentalists, said the current economic hardship was no time to be saying no to new industrial development.
"The potential for disaster is great," he said. "But I cannot in good conscience stand and protest the pipeline, because of the large number of jobs this is going to create for American citizens. Here in Port Arthur, we're looking at 14.5% unemployment. You'll die faster from starvation than you will from pollution, and that's the only options that we have, unfortunately."