AUSTIN — The politically volatile Keystone XL pipeline is becoming embroiled in a widening controversy in Texas as supporters tout the promise of jobs and other economic benefits while increasingly vocal opponents say the project would trample property rights and endanger water supplies in East Texas.
Although President Barack Obama rejected the application by TransCanada, the pipeline company says it plans to resubmit its proposal to transport heavy crude oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. The project holds $2 billion of economic potential for Texas, more than for any other state, according to a survey commissioned by TransCanada.
Its high-profile supporters include Gov. Rick Perry and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, all Republicans. Perry made the pipeline an element of his failed presidential bid by blasting Obama's rejection of the application, accusing the president of squandering the chance to create jobs.
"There is not a politician in Texas in their right mind -- I don't care if you're a Democrat or Republican -- that doesn't know the importance of this to all of Texas," said Bill McCoy, president of the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce. At least two Port Arthur refineries, Motiva Enterprises and Valero, would be on the receiving end of the 1,661-mile pipeline.
But landowners, environmentalists and property rights advocates have begun stepping forward in an impassioned campaign against the 376 miles of pipeline that would stretch through 18 counties in East Texas.
Opponents accuse TransCanada of using bullying tactics to seize land rights for the project and say a spill could pollute vital water resources in drought-ridden Texas.
Sign-wielding protesters gathered outside a court hearing in Paris on Friday to support Julia Trigg Crawford in her efforts to block TransCanada from digging on a 600-acre farm that has been in her family since 1948.
Crawford, who manages the farm, says the pipeline threatens Bois d'Arc Creek, which flows through the Northeast Texas property, as well as Native American archaeological remains.
"My hope is that our state leaders will see that their landowners are being bullied," Crawford told the Star-Telegram earlier in the week.
The opposition campaign has also re-energized a property rights coalition that flexed its muscle during the last decade to upend one of Perry's most ambitious projects, the Trans-Texas Corridor.
The project was originally envisioned as a $145 billion-plus supernetwork of tollways, rails and utility lines. It dissolved after it was attacked as a land grab that would encroach on thousands of private acres. The involvement of a foreign contractor, Spain-based Cintra, further angered opponents.
"We certainly have shades of the corridor fight resurrecting themselves," said Wharton businesswoman Debra Medina, who ran against Perry in the 2010 gubernatorial race and is a leading opponent of the Keystone project.
"You've got a foreign company. You've got a private property battle. If I know Texans like I think I do, I think the landowners will win," Medina said.
The project would complement an existing TransCanada pipeline in the United States, doubling the system's total capacity to 1.1 million barrels of crude a day into U.S. markets, the company said. The 1,661-mile, 36-inch, $7 billion pipeline would start in Alberta, Canada, and stretch through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Obama turned down the application over concerns about the route's potential impact on the environmentally sensitive Nebraska Sandhills, but he left the door open for a new application. Republicans accused the president of turning his back on a project that supporters say would create more than 100,000 jobs.
Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said the company plans to resubmit the application to reroute the pipeline away from the sand hills, but the rest of the route, including the Texas portion, would remain the same.
Waco economist Ray Perryman, in a TransCanada-sponsored study that critics dispute, says the pipeline would create at least 50,000 jobs in Texas, by far the most of any pipeline state. Perryman also predicts $41 million in state government revenue and $7.6 million for local governments during construction.
But many of those in or near the proposed route say the uncertainties and potential hazards outweigh the positives. In Reklaw, population 266, Mayor Harlan Crawford says fighting the pipeline has become his principal mission in a job otherwise filled with the predictable litany of small-town complaints, such as stray dogs and water problems.
The community, which Crawford, 77, describes as "just a blink in the road," was founded in 1890. Settlers wanted the name Walker but, learning that it was taken, opted for the backward spelling. Many current inhabitants are aging retirees.
After learning that the pipeline would run near the town, residents joined forces with Gallatin, another small farming community, to form the equivalent of a regional compact that would give them more power to challenge the pipeline. One big concern for the alliance is the potential contamination of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which lies underneath 60 counties.
"This is some nasty stuff, and we look to get it stopped," Crawford said.
Others say TransCanada representatives also applied not-so-subtle pressure when they began acquiring access to property to build the pipeline.
"They were pushy and would intimidate you and said you had to sign this thing," said Eleanor Fairchild, who lives near Winnsboro in Wood County. Like others, she said, she "got into the fight" out of concern over possible water contamination.
"We can live without oil," she said, "but we cannot live without water."
Michael Bishop, a retired Marine who owns 20 acres in Nacogdoches County, hired an attorney to fight the project after learning that the route would cut through his orchard and garden.
"It's going to totally disrupt my life as I know it," he said. "Is it fair for a foreign-owned company to come over here and take land for their private use and their personal gain?"
As with the Trans-Texas Corridor, the pipeline dispute seems certain to reopen a legislative debate over eminent domain powers, which governmental entities and so-called common carriers such as utilities and pipelines use to acquire land for public projects after compensating the owner.
TransCanada has used eminent domain to acquire a number of tracts, but critics of the company are challenging that authority, citing a 2011 Texas Supreme Court decision that makes it harder for pipelines to meet the definition of a common carrier.
Entities with eminent domain powers typically first seek to negotiate with a landowner. If they can't agree, the entity sues to take the land. The courts also appoint a three-member commission to set a price.
Howard, the TransCanada spokesman, called eminent domain proceedings "an absolute last resort" for the company and said "we do everything we can" to reach a voluntary agreement instead of going to court. He also said the company uses the property as a right of way for the pipeline and does not take ownership.
The company has obtained 99 percent of the easements needed to build the pipeline in Texas, with only 19 tracts outstanding, he said.
Medina, who now heads We Texans, a conservative advocacy group, says she has documented at least 89 lawsuits in which property owners were taken to court. She also said others have been forced to negotiate because they couldn't afford a legal battle.
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The Fort Worth Star-Telegram