Before dawn on Feb. 11 in the Seminole County town of Schoolton, Stefan Warner, youth pastor at Church of the Open Arms in Oklahoma City, suspended himself high above the ground to construction machinery used to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I ascended a side boom and attached a platform to it,” Warner said. “I put my arms in a device attached to the machinery and locked my wrists to [the] inside of the pipes so police would have to cut me out.”
Authorities arrived, lowered the boom and cut Warner from the pipes.
“When they removed me from the machinery, there’s workers and cops just standing there, looking at me,” recalled Warner. “I said, ‘Am I free to go?’ The cop’s like, ‘No,’ grabs my hands and takes me to jail.”
He was arrested along with seven other members of the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, which opposes the pipeline.
There have been similar incidents surrounding the project. Earlier in February, Elisabeth Leja, a 74-year-old retired schoolteacher from Norman, chained herself to construction equipment that TransCanada is using to build KXL’s southern leg, a 485-mile pipeline that will run from Cushing’s oil storage hub to Gulf Coast refineries in Houston.
On April 9, 79-year-old Warr Acres grandmother Nancy Zorn staged a nonviolent protest using a bike lock to attach herself to an excavator in Hughes County.
Warner said his opposition comes down to diluted bitumen.
Canada’s boreal forests contain vast deposits of oil sands, or tar sands. Heating the tar sands leads to a sludgy, viscous form of petroleum, called bitumen, that can be pumped from the ground.
To transport it through pipelines, a liquefied natural gas dilutes the bitumen and creates dilbit, or diluted bitumen.
The full KXL pipeline, once complete, will carry diluted bitumen — a substance far more corrosive than conventional crude oil — from Alberta, Canada, through Oklahoma to Texas refineries.
Environmentalists and indigenous people across North America argue that tar sands would wreak havoc if it made its way into a town’s water supply. Kalamazoo, Mich., residents faced that scenario in the summer of 2010, when a pipeline burst, pumping the heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River.
When the Exxon Pegasus pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., on March 31, it was carrying tar sands oil, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of diluted bitumen into residential neighborhoods and a cove adjacent to nearby Lake Conway.
Opposition ramps up
On April 16, that Mayflower spill prompted Eric Whelan, 26, and Gwen Ingram, 56, to halt construction on the KXL pipeline at a Bryan County work site.
Whelan, who grew up in McLoud, sat atop a 40-foot pole structure in the middle of a construction site while Ingram, a Luther resident, locked herself to heavy machinery.
“Keystone XL sounded like a bad idea from the beginning,” Whelan said afterward. “The Mayflower spill proves that we shouldn’t be trusting these multinational corporations, like Exxon or TransCanada, because every spill further exposes their criminal incompetence. ... I’m taking action to prevent a tragedy like that from happening in Oklahoma.”
By noon that day, police had arrested Whelan, Ingram and Warner, who had joined the pair.
With President Obama expected to make a decision about the pipeline’s future in late summer or early fall, environmentalist groups have ramped up their opposition to KXL.
“The Canadian boreal forest contains the largest wetlands area of any ecosystem in the world. The same forest system spreads across Canada into Alberta, where the tar sands mega-project is destroying a landmass the size of Florida,” Warner said. “The same companies poisoning First Nations land in Canada are active in Oklahoma, as we see TransCanada constructing the KXL through Oklahoma.”
The pipeline has strong support in Oklahoma, as proponents say its completion will create jobs and heighten economic growth. U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, contends the Obama administration is “running out of excuses” to delay the project.
“This job-creating project is vital to improving the employment situation for many communities throughout the midwest and continuing our progress toward North American energy independence,” he said. “It is time for the administration to approve the pipeline construction and allow American workers to get to work building our critical energy infrastructure.”