A Texas landowner in Nacogdoches County secured a temporary restraining order on Tuesday against the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline by arguing that tar sands is not actually a type of oil.
Judge Jack Sinz granted the order without first notifying TransCanada, the company behind the ambitious pipeline that aims to transport Canadian tar sands to the Texas gulf coast for further refinement. In his ruling, Judge Sinz noted that the order was granted immediately because construction had already begun on the plaintiff’s property and any delay could potentially result in further damages. A hearing on the matter is set for Wednesday, December 19.
“You can’t argue the science,” 64-year-old Michael Bishop, the plaintiff in the case, told Raw Story on Tuesday. “That’s number one. TransCanada has defrauded the American people into thinking this is crude oil coming in from Canada and is going to be the savior of America. It’s just beyond me. This has been totally misrepresented. The people have been misled. Landowners have been coerced and bullied into thinking the company has the power of eminent domain.”
Bishop, who’s representing himself in the case, has filed several lawsuits in an effort to stop TransCanada’s pipeline, but unlike other land owners who’ve sued over abuse of eminent domain — or protesters who’ve taken to physically blocking construction or simply living in east Texas trees — Bishop has a different strategy.
“He believes that TransCanada has defrauded the people of Texas and of the United States in misrepresenting this as a crude oil pipeline, when it’s not,” Christine Wilson, consultant for Public Citizen Texas, told Raw Story. “He feels that he has a good case. He’s asked for a jury trial for his ultimate permanent injunction case. He intends to prove that diluted bitumen is not crude oil.”
The difference, she explained, is worth about a billion dollars or so, which is roughly how much the tar sands refinery on the Texas gulf coast is worth. That’s why Bishop targeted the Texas Railroad Commission, which is supposed to regulate oil companies. Bishop argues that the commission essentially rubber-stamped the pipeline even though TransCanada is committing fraud by classifying tar sands as crude oil.
Tar sands is more commonly known as a synthetic crude because it is heavier and less viscus than traditional light, sweet crude. It has to be heated with a proprietary chemical solvent in order to flow through pipes like light crude, and carries with it additional grit that tends to corrode pipe casing faster than other types of oil. That solvent and the heavier tar can begin to seep into water tables almost immediately upon spillage, taking an unknown toll on the environment thanks to how secretive companies are with the actual makeup of their unique chemical mixtures.
Bishop, a retired chemist, insisted that crude oil, by state and federal definitions, is fundamentally different than bitumen, which produces tar sands. “You have to physically mine it; it is a solid material,” he explained. “If it looks like crap, if it smells like crap, the chances are pretty good that it’s crap.”
A spill of tar sands oil on the Yellowstone River in 2011 caused the state of Montana to cite Exxon for failure to disclose that it was tar sands and caustic chemicals running through the pipes, instead of traditional crude. Public Citizen Texas’ Wilson added that activists in Texas have had similar difficulties forcing TransCanada to disclose what toxic materials they plan on using.
“[The Railroad Commission] just rubber stamped the operator’s permit for the pipeline, but state code mandates they have prove this is indeed crude oil,” she said. “[This lawsuit] intends to prove they have not done their due diligence.”
Dispute Bishop’s insistence, the U.S. Geological Survey says that bitumen, or tar sands, is in fact a type of crude oil. TransCanada hasn’t yet issued a statement on if or when they’ll appeal Sinz’s ruling.
Update: Judge overturns restraining order
Nacogdoches County Judge Jack Sinz on Thursday overturned the restraining order he granted to Texas landowner Mike Bishop earlier in the week, restoring TransCanada’s right to continue working on Bishop’s land.
“TransCanada executives may be smirking over Judge Sinz’s ruling today, but they’ve got another thing coming if they think I’ll just roll over for its dirty pipeline,” Bishop said in a media advisory. “I didn’t pick this fight, but I refuse to sit idly by while a multinational corporation tramples my rights and that of other landowners all along Keystone XL’s path in the name of deepening its profits.”
Bishop will be back in court on the 19th for a hearing over his allegations of fraud. ——
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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