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By Candice Bernd
March 24, 2012
Caption : What the Keystone XL pipeline means for the people across much of the south.     

CUSHING, Okla.—Just beyond the tank farms in the town of Cushing, Okla., the poorer neighborhoods stand out. These are the dilapidated homes and trailers that are not benefitting from Cushing’s oil wealth—and they won’t benefit from the tar sands pipeline that President Obama said he plans to expedite through the town either.

President Obama came to the town on Thursday to unveil his “all of the above” energy strategy saying, “We have added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the earth and then some.”

While the president rejected the permit for the cross-border northern half of the Keystone XL pipeline in the fall amid cheers from his environmental base, he has backtracked on that position considerably, now wholeheartedly endorsing the southern half of the pipeline which will run from Cushing to Port Arthur, Tex.

This portion of the pipeline doesn’t require presidential approval because it doesn’t cross an international border. Meanwhile, TransCanada is re-applying for a permit to build the pipeline project’s northern section.

But the southern half of the pipeline, like the town of Cushing itself, highlights the basic environmental justice issues that always come into play when the fossil fuel extraction, production, and refinement processes move into poorer towns. Communities of color, including indigenous nations, feel the brunt of the smog and reap none of the benefits.

According to Rosemary Crawford of the Center for Energy Matters, Oklahoma state officials have agreed to the construction of the gulf portion of the Keystone XL and to the pipeline’s construction on tribal lands. Crawford said the state told her organization that the pipeline will destroy 71 archeological sites and 21 historical properties across the state.

“We have asked for a list of those properties so that we would be able to know if our ancestors, these are Native American burial grounds, what the information is about that, and we have been denied that information,” Crawford, who is Cherokee and Choctaw, told Campus Progress.

Crawford is from Shawnee, Okla., and came out to Memorial Park on Thursday, where the president spoke, to protest the pipeline.

Several pro-Obama environmental groups also showed up to protest the Keystone XL on Thursday and were instructed by the Cushing Police Department that they had to confine their protests to the park, which was located about six miles from the site where Obama gave his speech. Protesters were told that if they crossed the police line set up at the park they would risk being arrested.

But Americans for Prosperity, a well-known right-wing Koch Brothers Astroturf group, bussed in several pro-pipeline supporters sporting yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flags into Cushing, and the supporters were allowed to line the president’s route along Main Street. 

When the Oklahoma regional organizer for, Ginny Webster, called the police department to ask why anti-pipeline protesters were confined to the park while pro-pipeline supporters were allowed to line the street, an unidentified officer reportedly told her that they were likely on private property.

I was there in the park on Thursday. The protesters were repeatedly reminded that if they crossed the police line, they would be arrested. A line of highway patrol officers stared us down on the other side of the police tape the whole time. The Payne County Sheriff was in the parking lot. The protesters at the park were completely cut-off from the president and from the people of Cushing. In fact, most were surprised when the President’s motorcade passed by the park.

I couldn’t help but thinking about how the pipeline supporters who carried the iconic “Don’t Tread On Me” flags were ignoring the fact that a huge portion of private property will be seized for TransCanada across much of the south.

“I’ve been working with some landowners in the state of Oklahoma that will have that pipeline coming through and taking their land, and taking it by eminent domain,” Crawford said. “They received threats and they were highly fearful of TransCanada and the way they did their business. Every case of the people I spoke with said they signed out of a position of fear.”

Another indigenous activist in the park was a man named Alan Kelly, who is Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Seneca Cayuga Nation.

“In the state of Oklahoma, the pipeline has resulted in the state getting eminent domain over much sacred Indian land,” he said. “If your grandmother and great grandmother were buried some place in Shawnee and [TransCanada] were to just come in and tear that cemetery up, how would you feel?

“We’ve never been respected as a sovereign nation and as indigenous peoples and now we’re being dishonored. It’s got to stop somewhere.”

Kelly and Crawford both expressed concerns over TransCanada’s investors, which include China and other countries to which the tar sand product will be exported, and concerns about President Obama’s decision to expedite the project in their state.

“I think his administration has done more to dishonor and disrespect sovereign nations, indigenous peoples,” Kelly said. “The Citizen Potawatomi Nation—it’s the most treatied nation in the history of the United States and not one single treaty has even been honored by this government.”

The park was also populated with landowners, environmentalists, and Occupy activists. Wichita State student Michelle Pawlack is part of Occupy Wichita in Kansas and told Campus Progress that the group had an event protesting the Koch Brothers as well as the Keystone XL pipeline in February.

“I think [Obama] is trying to get support from both sides of the spectrum. He’s basically trying to play all the cards he can to try and get all of the support he can,” Pawlock said. “He’s being a hypocrite in a real sense and people need to wake up and realize that and not just look at what he’s doing for one side or the other.”

Communities of color in Port Arthur are also speaking out against the refinement of bitumen-laced sands from Alberta, Canada in their backyards.

“All my life we’ve lived in the shadows of refineries and chemical plants,” said community activist Hilton Kelley, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council staff blog. Kelley is a Port Arthur native son who received the Goldman Environmental Prize and got to meet with President Obama last year.

“We grew up with the smell of sulfur and various other chemicals that’s being dumped into our environment,” he told the NRDC. “A large number of people are suffering from bronchitis, acute asthma, and there’s a lot of folks in this community with liver disease and cancer due to the emissions, I believe, that are being dumped into our air and the types of chemicals that we’re breathing.

“We say no to the Keystone XL pipeline because we don’t need any additional pollution being dumped into our air, and that’s what it’s going to bring.”

Obama’s energy strategy, including his endorsement of the Gulf Coast tar sands pipeline, means more wealth for those profiting from the exportation of crude oil and tar sands oil and more oppression for communities living in the shadow of production and refinement facilities and areas in the pipeline’s path.

And his energy strategy may only lead to a worsening of climate change—scientists are warning that, to prevent the most dramatic effects, 80 percent of current known fossil-fuel reserves must remain unburned.

But the communities most greatly affected by climate change and the tar sands pipeline are organizing in the south, and with the onset of the 99 Percent Spring, the fight against the Keystone XL will only continue to heat up.

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