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Big Oil strains its Texas friendship

Landowners take rare stand against TransCanada line

Julia Trigg Crawford stands near work by TransCanada on a oil pipeline near her family farm on Oct. 4 in Sumner, Texas. (Associated Press)
Julia Trigg Crawford stands near work by TransCanada on a oil pipeline near her family farm on Oct. 4 in Sumner, Texas. (Associated Press)
Ramit Plushnick-Masti Associated Press

SUMNER, Texas – Oil has long lived in harmony with farmland and cattle across the Texas landscape.

Proud Texans have long welcomed the industry because of the cash it brings to sustain agriculture, but also see its presence as part of their patriotic duty to help wean the United States off “foreign” oil. So the answer to companies that wanted to build pipelines has usually been simple: Yes.

Enter TransCanada.

As the company pursues construction of a 1,179-mile-long cross-country pipeline meant to bring Canadian tar sands oil to South Texas refineries, it’s finding opposition in the unlikeliest of places: oil-friendly Texas, a state that has more pipelines snaking through the ground than any other.

In the minds of some landowners approached by TransCanada for land, the company has broken the code.

Nearly half the steel TransCanada is using is not American-made and the company won’t promise to use local workers exclusively; it can’t guarantee the oil will remain in the United States. It has snatched land.

To fight back, insulted Texas landowners are filing and appealing dozens of lawsuits, threatening to further delay a project that has already encountered many obstacles. Others are allowing activists to go on their land to stage protests.

“We’ve fought wars for it. We stood our ground at the Alamo for it. There’s a lot of reasons that Texans are very proud of their land and proud when you own land that you are the master of that land and you control that land,” said Julia Trigg Crawford, who is fighting the condemnation of a parcel of her family’s 650-acre Red’Arc Farm in Sumner, about 115 miles northeast of Dallas.

Oil and agriculture have lived in peace in part because a one-time payment from a pipeline company or monthly royalties from a production rig can help finance a ranch or farm that struggle today to turn a profit from agriculture. The oil giants also respected landowners’ fierce Texas independence, even sometimes drilling in a different yard or rerouting a pipeline to ensure easy access to the minerals below.

TransCanada is different. For one, it has more often sought and received court permission to condemn land when property owners didn’t agree to an easement.

“This is a foreign company,” Crawford said. “Most people believe that as this product gets to the Houston area and is refined, it’s probably then going to be shipped outside the United States. So if this product is not going to wind up as gasoline or diesel fuel in your vehicles or mine then what kind of energy independence is that creating for us?”

Activists have handcuffed themselves to machinery. A group has moved into a grove of trees on a TransCanada easement. A 78-year-old great-grandmother, Eleanor Fairchild, whose late husband worked in the oil industry, spent a night in jail after trespassing – along with actress Daryl Hannah – on land condemned on her 425-acre farm. On Monday, eight others were arrested for their protest activities.

Many of the lawsuits in Texas are about TransCanada’s “common carrier” status. This allows companies building projects benefiting the public to condemn private property. The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled if a landowner challenges a condemnation, the company must prove its project is for the public good.

David Dodson, a TransCanada spokesman in Houston, said the company has agreements with 60,000 landowners in North America, hundreds of them in Texas. Many have been reached easily, he said. The problems in Texas, he believes, may just be a sign of the times.

“These days, anyone who attempts to build a linear infrastructure project, Texas, wherever it is, it doesn’t matter, is facing increased opposition,” Dodson said.

Some landowners have reached agreements without a problem. Henry Duncan, whose 200-acre farm is across the road from the Crawford’s, wouldn’t say how much TransCanada paid, but feels he was fairly compensated for his 7 acres.

“To be quite honest, I’d like to see another one come through because they pay good,” Duncan said.

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