Max Mills

The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to Gulf Coast refineries in southeastern Texas. The northern section was stalled due to protests along the proposed route, and Tar Sands Actions in Washington DC. The southern Gulf Coast Project from Cushing, Oklahoma, to Houston and Port Arthur Texas, however, was pushed through. The Gulf Coast Project was met with a diverse coalition of rural landowners and radical environmentalists from around the country determined to not let the pipeline go through. In South Dakota and Nebraska a coalition of Indigenous Lakota and rural ranchers converged on Washington DC to protest the pipeline, for the water. In 2014, 200 people were arrested in Washington DC protesting the pipeline by chaining themselves to the White House fence. 

Why are We Fighting?

The Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline is a pipeline proposal within the larger Keystone pipeline network. The pipeline was slated to go from the Alberta Tar Sands (See Alberta Tar Sands) above the Ogallala Aquifer, to Cushing, Oklahoma. It then would go south through east Texas to southeastern Texas where it split off to Houston, and Port Arthur refineries. The pipeline would not be for domestic consumption but rather transportation of Canadian heavy oil through the U.S. (Jackson). The total pipeline would be 1,200 miles long, made of pipe 36 inches in diameter transporting about 830,000 barrels of bitumen a day. The Tar Sands “oil” is comprised of viscous thick sandy sludge that needs a toxic stew of chemical dillutants which, “…TransCanada refuses to disclose a comprehensive analysis of…”  to allow it to travel through the pipe (Why Oppose the KXL). The bitumen is not traditional oil (See Bitumen). It is “corrosive and abrasive…they get a lot of the sand out before it goes in the line, but they don’t get it all,” and this corrosive tarry sludge needs carcinogenic chemicals like “benzene in the tar to make it runny so it will flow” (Avery 118).

President Obama voicing support for the Gulf Coast Project in Ripley, Oklahoma (Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times) 

President Obama voicing support for the Gulf Coast Project in Ripley, Oklahoma (Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times) 

North and South

In 2012, Obama was stalling on the decision to go forward with the northern portion of the pipeline from the Canadian border to Cushing OK, “an oil town known in the industry as the nation’s pipeline crossroads,” but he slid through the southern segment from Cushing to Gulf Coast refineries (Calmes). This section of pipeline cost US$2.3 billion and is 487 miles long (TransCanada). Controversy arose when it was discovered that this pipeline goes right through land between Texas and Oklahoma that was reserved for a wildlife refuge as mitigation for displaced habitat (Voss 2012). 

Creation of Blockadia

The fight against the Gulf Coast Project in Texas and Oklahoma made some very unusual alliances. Harlan Hentges, a lawyer for the Center for Energy Matters in Edmond, Oklahoma explained the alliances, such as: “Whenever it’s eminent domain, I team up with radical right-wing property groups; whenever it’s the environment, I team up with radical left-wing environmental groups” (Avery 130). TransCanada abused eminent domain laws in Texas and Oklahoma to force its pipeline through the property of rural landowners. Eminent domain is a law in which a "state or corporation can seize property in public interest" (Graham). The main problem with using eminent domain is that the Gulf Coast Project is not in the U.S. “public interest” because it is an export pipeline (Jackson). Oklahoma resident and Indigenous environmental activist with the Center for Energy Matters, Rosemary Crawford, explained that landowners often signed the eminent domain papers out of fear and intimidation, “[Oklahoma landowners] received threats and they were highly fearful of TransCanada and the way they did their business” (Tar Sands Blockade). The pipeline is devastating and destroys the likelihoods of ranchers in Oklahoma as well as Texas. Sam Avery describes the impacts on rural ranchers in Oklahoma:

The pipeline will run diagonally across their land and within a hundred yards of their house. TransCanada will put a large equipment yard in the front yard, by the road. Jack will not be allowed to drive his own equipment across the easement, which will compromise the utility of the land to the point where he will have to move the operation to keep it going at all. He is too old to consider that possibility, so he will simply close it down (Avery 132).

This pipeline has put Jack out of business, and made his land unusable in the way he wants to use it. Ironically, while TransCanada’s main selling point for the pipeline is job creation, the reality is that the pipeline displaces ranchers, and puts them out of business. The pipeline is bringing environmental devastation all along its route in the form of spills waiting to happen. Gabriel Scott in Winnsboro, Texas was looking at TransCanada’s map of the route and saw a big red line “going down through the middle of our land,” wondering what it was. He learned that it is marking what they are calling a “kill zone,” he goes on to explain what it means, “Even if there was a pinhole in that pipeline, at 1400 psi, that’s like a bullet (Avery).

Tree sitter in the Piney Woods of north east Texas. (Credit: Tar Sands Blockade) 

Tree sitter in the Piney Woods of north east Texas. (Credit: Tar Sands Blockade) 

In the Piney Woods of northeastern Texas, unlikely alliances began to be formed. Landowner, circus stuntman, and founder of the Winnsboro group, Stop Tar sands Oil Permanently (STOP), David Daniel used his stuntman skills to set up an aerial blockade in a treehouse on one of the trees on the easement of the KXL on his property. A group of mostly students and graduates of the University of North Texas in Denton, calling themselves Rising Tide North Texas, came out to help build and reinforce the blockade. This group quickly grew and changed its name to Tar Sands Blockade (TSB) after an action camp in July 2012 at Gabriel Scott’s farm outside of Winnsboro (Avery). Later that year in October TransCanada made a new easement still on David Daniels land but curving around the blockade. Rerouting the pipeline circumvented the issue of the protesters, but still devastating the ecosystem (Gallucci). Naomi Klein, in her This Changes Everything, calls this form of place-based radical environmentalism “Blockadia,” where rural landowners are leading the struggle aided by highly trained activists to support in the defense of their homes from corporate interests (Klein).

Lakota Resilience

On March 6, 2012, seventy-five Lakota tribal members on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota took direct action blocking two TransCanada pipe trucks from crossing the reservation. After a six-hour standoff, tribal police arrested the protesters and made the pipe trucks get off the reservation (Avery 33). Some Lakota leaders have vowed to be “dead or in prison before the Keystone XL pipeline [is] allowed to pass” (Ibanez).  The proposed pipeline route would pass through Indigenous sacred sites, burial grounds, and numerous drinking water sites as well as the Ogallala Aquifer. Debra White Plume, a longtime Lakota organizer against uranium mining and leader of the Owe Aku International Justice Project said, “Every door to opposing the Keystone XL is closing one by one… soon the only door left open will be direct action.” To prepare for this eventuality she started the Training for Resistance tour of Non Violent Direct Action tactics in Indian Country from South Dakota to Oklahoma (Tejada and Catlin).

The international fight against Tar Sands infrastructure brought together Indigenous nations from the Plains to the Coasts, ushering in a new era of Indigenous resistance.  On the 150th anniversary of the treaty signed by Pawnee, Ihanktonwan Oyate (Yankton Sioux), and the U.S. government, nations from the Prairies to the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest signed an International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects (or International Treaty to Protect the Sacred). In March 2014, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe set up a Spirit Camp as a way to non-violently protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The camp was placed along the route in the way of proposed construction, with more prayers and ceremonies planned along other sites along the pipeline route. Brandon Sazue, President of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe expressed a feeling of unity in tribal resolve to not let the pipeline go through at any cost: “Today we stand together, today we stand united… the KXL pipeline will not come through here, I will die if I have too.” Participants came from many different tribes to pray at this 24-hour vigil (Waln).

Unlikely Alliances in Cattle Country

The main fight in Nebraska though was around the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region which currently has no pipelines running through it, and which the Keystone XL was initially proposed to traverse (Song). TransCanada changed the route to avoid the Sand Hills but it still went through the Ogallala Aquifer (Song 2012). The Ogallala Aquifer is a huge body of underground water that goes through most of Nebraska down to Texas. The water table in the Sand Hills region is only about four or five feet deep, and the trench that TransCanada proposed to dig for the pipeline would be a minimum of seven feet. “So the pipe will not be over the aquifer or above the aquifer; it will be in the aquifer. It will be sitting in water” (Avery 118).

White ranchers have developed a connection to Native Americans in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Native Americans have had their land stolen and now a foreign corporation is stealing ranchers’ land for this project (Avery). In April 2014, rural peoples – farmers, ranchers, and Indigenous peoples – from all along the pipeline route saddled up in Washington DC as the Cowboy Indian Alliance, to march together and tell Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline (Meisel). 

Protesters outside The White House at #NoKXL protest in 2014. (Credit: M. Scott Mahaskey) 

Protesters outside The White House at #NoKXL protest in 2014. (Credit: M. Scott Mahaskey) 

Political Pressure

Most of the actions discussed so far have involved local, rural people standing up to defend their homes, ways of life, and water from destruction. Bookending the blockades were national civil disobedience actions in Washington DC. The rhetoric at these national protests was primarily about climate change, which may have been at the backs of people’s minds, but was not the focus of the rural landowners and radical environmentalists. The people who were risking arrest in 2011 at the White House explain their action:

“We’re here today to show the depth of our resolve that President Obama take immediate, decisive action against climate change” (Why We Take Action).

In a November 2011 press release, Tar Sands Action claimed “nearly 10,000” people gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House, then proceeded to encircle the White House and link arms. People came from all walks of life and all across the country, from celebrities (actor Mark Ruffalo) and leaders of Non-Government Organizations (Bill McKibbin, Mike Brune, and John Adams) to ordinary people from the pipeline route (Tar Sands Action).

On Sunday March 2nd, 2014, “more than 300 anti-Keystone XL protesters were arrested outside the White House” (Buford). About 50 of those protesters were dressed in grays and black lay down on the sidewalk representing a “human oil spill” one person from Michigan who is running to be a senator held a block of oil sands as he marched saying, “The sick people in Michigan, the sick people in Canada, they’re looking to you [Obama].” Students were there representing 80 universities. Some of the protesters zip-tied their hands to the White House fence to force the cops to cut them free (Buford).

What We Have Learned

The Keystone XL pipeline met massive resistance because TransCanada did not understand the ecology of the region, particularly in relation to the Ogallala Aquifer which was a huge rallying point and catalyst. Nor did the company understand the resolve and unexpected unity of the diverse people along the pipeline route. Coalitions around common issues across wide differences have been hugely successful, adamantly pressuring President Obama to reject the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, which he finally did in November 2015 (Indian Country Today). Rural people who have a connection to the land will go to great lengths to protect that land from poison. People from all walks of life all across the continent are engaging with the issue of climate change. 


Avery, S. (2013). The pipeline and the paradigm: Keystone XL, tar sands, and the battle to defuse the carbon bomb. Washington D.C.: Ruka Press.

Buford, T. (2014, March 02). Mass arrests at Keystone protest. Politico.  

Calmes, J. (2012, March 22). In Oklahoma, Obama Declares Pipeline Support. New York Times. 

Gallucci, M. (2012, December 17). Keystone XL Tree Protesters Call It Quits After Pipeline Rerouted Around Them. Inside Climate News.   

Ibanez, C. (2014, March 13). Lakota vow: 'dead or in prison before we allow the KXL pipeline.' Waging Nonviolence.  

Indian Country Today staff (2015, Nov. 6), Obama Rejects Keystone XL: ‘Does Not Serve National Interest. Indian Country Today Media Network.

Jackson, J. (2012, June 8). The Tar Sands Pipeline Explained in Under Two Minutes. Tar Sands Blockade.

Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Toronto, ON: Alfred A Knopf Canada.

Meisel, D. (2014, April 26). Thousands March with Cowboy and Indian Alliance at Reject and Protect. Reject and Protect.

Ramer, Jon. (2013, January 26). International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects.  Protect the Sacred

Song, L. (2011, September 2). Keystone XL Primer: Why Nebraska Is Ground Zero in the Pipeline Fight. Inside Climate News. 

Song, L. (2012, April 26). New Keystone XL Route: Out of the Sandhills, but Still in the Aquifer. Inside Climate News. 

Tar Sands Action (n.d.). Press Releases. Tar Sands Action.

Tar Sands Action. (n.d.) Why We Take Action. Tar Sands Action. 

Tar Sands Blockade. (2012, April 21). TransCanada's Land Grab for Climate Changing Tar Sands.  Tar Sands Blockade. 

Tar Sands Blockade. (2012, October 29). Why Oppose the Keystone XL? Tar Sands Blockade.

Tejada, C., & Caitlin, B. (2013, May 8). Indigenous resistance grows strong in Keystone XL battle. Waging Nonviolence.

TransCanada. (2014, January 22). Gulf Coast Project Begins Delivering Crude Oil to Nederland, Texas. TransCanada. 

Voss, C. (2012, September 30). Tar Sands is Going to Poison Our Water. Tar Sands Blockade. 

Waln, V. (2014, March 30). Spirit Camp Hosts Opening Ceremony on Rosebud Reservation. Sicangu Lakota.