Deep in the heart of East Texas, gently sloping fields, fertile cropland and willowy pine trees stretch as far as the eye can see.
Horses and cattle roam the grassy land — sometimes just feet above an underground pipeline stretching from Cushing, Okla., to the Texas coast that has sparked an international battle over politics, the economy and the environment.
While the debate rages over the northern part of the project, the $2.6 billion southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is already pumping crude 487 miles to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.
The part of the pipeline that began operating in January was fast-tracked by President Barack Obama and has been called an economic boon, a job creator, a way to help the U.S. become more energy independent — and one of the “safest” pipelines built to date.
But some who live along the path of the TransCanada pipeline say they fear the day a leak occurs and the contamination it could unleash on Texas land and waterways.
In recent years, the highly emotional issue prompted legal challenges and spurred protesters to turn out, staging hunger strikes, chaining themselves to equipment and camping in trees, hoping to prevent progress along the route or cause Texas refineries to shut down or opt out of using the pipeline.
“What’s good and bad about it is in the eyes of the beholder,” said Bill Fisher, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. “But this is a main way that we move crude oil around. It’s still the dominant way of transport.
“If you are interested in an ample energy supply and transporting crude oil in the United States … the pipeline is by far the most common way of transport,” he said. “If you have a pipeline across your ranch, you’re likely to not be very happy about it.”
In this midterm-election year, Obama has yet to say whether he will approve the northern portion.
That doesn’t ease the minds of some Texans who have spent years trying to keep the southern pipeline off their property and worrying about a leak.
“There’s going to be a leak somewhere,” said Julia Trigg Crawford, a Northeast Texas landowner who unsuccessfully fought for years to keep the pipeline off her family’s land. “It’s not a question of if it will leak but when it will leak.
“We are all watching for something to happen.”
‘Neighbors for a long time’
The Keystone XL Gulf Coast Project stretches 36-inch-wide crude oil pipeline across 487 miles to pump oil into Nederland to serve the Gulf Coast marketplace.
If TransCanada gains presidential approval, the northern leg of the pipeline will stretch to Canada and boost the oil that flows toward Texas. The ultimate goal is to pump about 700,000 barrels a day to the refineries.
When oil began flowing in January, it was at a rate of around 300,000 barrels a day. That has increased to between 400,000 and 500,000, said Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada.
“Everything has gone really well,” he said.
Howard said the pipeline, which is designed to move both heavy and light oil, is safe for several reasons: It was built with some of the strongest steel that exists, it is buried deeper, and it has more automated shut-off valves. The pipeline also uses advanced technology such as satellite imagery that is refreshed every five seconds and can quickly pinpoint problems.
“We have said this would be the safest pipeline built,” Howard said. “We understand the concern that some people have. We share that concern. Nobody wants to see something happen.”
Officials have long touted the pipeline’s economic impact.
Howard said the southern leg created 4,844 jobs; the southern and northern leg together should bring about 20,000.
A recent poll showed that 61 percent — with more support from Republicans than Democrats — favor building the pipeline, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
A fighting farmer
Crawford’s fight to keep the pipeline off her family’s farm, about 150 miles northeast of Fort Worth, has nearly ended.
It began in 2010 when she moved to Direct — about 20 miles outside Paris — to manage the 640-acre Red’Arc Farm, which her grandfather bought in 1948.
“I expected the quiet life,” the 55-year-old former Texas A&M University basketball player said with a wry smile.
She found herself moving from “discussions” with TransCanada, which offered to pay for a sliver of her family’s land, to a full-blown fight that included a lawsuit that the Texas Supreme Court recently decided not to hear.
Many other landowners, including Crawford’s neighbor Henry Duncan, welcomed the pipeline.
“I’ve got one line that’s coming across the backside of me and my cattle are eating on top of it and it’s not hurting them any,” he has told the media. “So I don’t see how this can hurt.”
But Crawford and her family protested — asking the company to shift its route to avoid their property, as other carriers had — because of concerns about how a pipeline could affect the land, the water supply and Caddo Indian burial grounds.
Offers for the use of their land ranged from $7,000 to $21,000, but discussions ended in 2011 and the Crawford family was told that part of the property was condemned. A $10,395 check compensating the family was left at the Lamar County Courthouse and has yet to be claimed.
As Crawford’s story drew national attention and she moved forward with a legal battle claiming that TransCanada had no right to condemn her property, supporters worldwide sent her about $120,000 in donations to keep fighting for the “little guy.”
After losing her lawsuit against TransCanada in both the lower and appeals courts, Crawford appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. On March 21, it declined to hear the case.
“I felt like I was kicked in the gut,” she said, adding that she’s weighing whether to ask the court to reconsider.
Now, she looks out her kitchen window every day and sees the land — less than 2 acres — that was taken for the pipeline.
“It represents something that was taken from me against my will,” she said. “I don’t care if it was less than 2 feet. A foreign corporation said they had more right to it than I did.”
On the first day the pipeline became active in January, Crawford said, she was informed that “sweet crude” was flowing under her property.
But she understands that plans are to transport “the nasty stuff.”
She and others worry that the pipeline will ship bitumen, a dense blend of oil and sand with the consistency of peanut butter. This petroleum product is so thick that it must be diluted or pumped at higher temperatures, and with greater pressure, than regular crude.
They fear that the higher temperature or higher pressure is more likely to break through the pipeline. And some environmentalists fear that bitumen, which they call dirty and toxic, would be hard to clean up if it spills onto Texas land or into streams and rivers.
Proponents say studies have shown that carrying this oil is as safe as carrying crude oil.
“This product has been moving into the U.S. for decades,” said Howard, of TransCanada. “From our perspective, oil is oil. It will come through the pipeline.”
A recent Public Citizen report raised questions about Keystone XL’s southern leg, citing concerns about the construction and inspection system, erosion, dents, sags, repairs and more.
Howard said TransCanada added 57 additional safety and operating procedures on the pipeline through Texas that aren’t typically used on other pipelines.
He said the Public Citizen report was based on statements made to people, not a scientific study. And he said concerns about portions of the pipeline being dug up and replaced were likely accurate.
Anytime a dent or other abnormality was found through the enhanced surveillance system — perhaps a dent caused by a rock — workers dug up that portion of the pipeline and replaced it, Howard said.
“We raised the bar on safety,” Howard said.
‘We have to be prepared’
Despite assurances from the company, some landowners remain worried.
“Pipelines do two things: transport things and leak,” said Jessica Ellison, whose family lives about 300 yards from where the pipeline was installed in Big Sandy near Tyler. “We are worried about the pipeline.
“Everybody is worried,” she said. “It’s just sad because what do you do?”
Ellison lives in Austin but said her brother farms on the land about 130 miles east of Fort Worth.
“You wonder: When’s it going to happen? Is it going to happen? Is it going to happen to us? If it does happen, is anyone going to come and clean it up and deal with it so nobody gets sick?”
Howard said the company is doing what it can to prevent leaks or other incidents.
“Nobody wants to see that happen,” he said. “That’s why we have built this oil pipeline to such a higher standard.
“If there is a problem … we can shut this pipeline down in minutes and investigate.”
Several landowners have banded together as Texas Pipeline Watch, keeping an eye on the pipeline on their property and watching for problems or leaks.
Crawford, for one, watches the creek that runs through her property. She added soil thermometers to determine whether the pipeline is heating up the land. And she has had her water tested for contaminants.
Miles away, Ellison’s family is also watching the pipeline — and talking to others about it.
“We are trying to let people know what’s going on and what’s in their own back yards,” she said. “We have to be prepared.”
Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at the Cox School of Business at SMU, said the safety concerns are unfounded.
“I think what’s happened is you’ve had a lot of environmentalists trying to stir up controversy by claiming there are safety issues related to the Gulf Coast project,” he said. “That’s a straw man. Accidents will happen and occasionally you do find ruptures of oil and gas pipelines.
“But this is a pipeline built in 2013 and 2014 with the best available materials and technology,” he said. “The probability of a leak or spill is very, very low. Does that mean there will never be an incident? In the next 100 years, there probably will be. There is no human activity that is totally incident-free.”
A variety of business leaders, enthusiastic about job creation, support the project.
“Stronger energy security and lower gas prices are not the only things that come with the KXL pipeline,” said Jim Rich, president of the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce. “Construction will bring new jobs, new customers, new business and new investment. New infrastructure projects will boost the economy.”
Talk about the pipeline arises from time to time at a popular coffee shop in Paris, Texas, not far from where the pipeline stretches through Lamar County.
Alyson Yoder, a 21-year-old barista at Paris Coffee Co., said she has seen only good things from the pipeline.
She personally has no safety concerns and explored her now-ex-boyfriend’s property in Direct when the pipeline was being installed there. She said she walked beside it, even tried to see in it.
“When it’s through town, the bars, restaurants, hotels get a lot of business,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea. It’s good for Paris.”