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More than a year after TransCanada crews started felling trees and digging trenches in East Texas, the southern segment of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—known as the Gulf Coast Project—will start delivering oil to Texas refineries today. The full Keystone XL line, which requires the administration’s approval because it crosses an international border, has met sustained opposition since it was first proposed in 2008. But when President Obama rejected the full project and fast-tracked its Oklahoma-to-Texas segment, conservative landowners formed an unlikely alliance with environmental activists and started a battle that continues today.
In Texas, pipeline opponents didn’t stop at holding signs and marching in major cities. Elderly landowners joined young protesters and locked themselves to TransCanada’s construction equipment or stood in front of machinery in rural East Texas where the pipeline was being built. In a three-month standoff with TransCanada, members of the Tar Sands Blockade built a “tree village” directly on the path of the pipeline route and lived on platforms 80 feet in the air. They documented their actions at every step, bringing national attention to the resistance against the pipeline in East Texas.
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For five years, Vokes had inspected TransCanada projects across North America and, too often for his liking, found they were poorly constructed and didn’t meet engineering codes. He’d tried to get his superiors to address the problems, to no avail, and was fired last year. In East Texas, he found that TransCanada hadn’t changed its way—even on what may be the most controversial pipeline ever proposed for North America.
“I believe in building pipelines,” he says. “But I like to have what’s in the pipeline [stay] inside the pipeline.”
TransCanada has long contended that Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline ever built. But in East Texas, landowners are growing increasingly alarmed by what they’ve seen first-hand: multiple repairs on pipeline sections with dents, faulty welds and other anomalies. The Oklahoma-to-Texas segment of Keystone XL is 90 percent complete, according to the company, and is expected to come online later this year.
Vokes says TransCanada prioritizes staying on schedule over quality. In a 28-page complaint filed last year with the Canadian government’s pipeline regulator, he describes rampant code violations on other TransCanada projects. He claims that the repair work in Texas proves the company is still ignoring the engineering codes and regulations that guide pipeline construction and warns that Keystone XL will likely leak.
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Drought is different along the border. Unlike Central Texas, which worries over its aquifers and its lakes, or East Texas, which jealously guards its mammoth reservoirs from booming cities, or the Panhandle, which is draining the Ogallala Aquifer, the border depends on a desert river that divides two nations.
South Texas has come to rely on the Rio Grande, but the river is drying up. Global climate change and prolonged drought, coupled with Mexico’s failure to deliver the water it’s supposed to under an international treaty, have taken a toll on the region’s water supply.
In a state that ranks third in total agricultural and livestock production in the nation, Texas farmers are worried. Crops may survive one year of scarce rainfall, but extended drought renders fields barren. Moreover, reduced snowpack in Colorado and New Mexico—which scientists link to climate change—means less water enters the Rio Grande upstream.
More than ever, the replenishing waters of Mexico’s Rio Conchos are crucial to reviving the Rio Grande and to saving farmers in the Rio Grande Valley. Texas politicians have taken to publicly denouncing Mexico and urging the U.S. government to force Mexico to deliver the water it’s supposed to.
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These days, if you mention “curfews” or “signing out” to students living in UT dorms, they’ll probably give you a funny look. They may take their freedom for granted, but it wasn’t so long ago that living situations on campus were much more buttoned-up.
Though UT was founded as a coed university in 1883—a time when many colleges in the country didn’t even admit women—the campus’ early layout reflected a prevailing attitude of the time: women were fragile beings who had to be guarded and protected, both physically and morally.
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In the winter of 2008, a good portion of the world’s only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes starved to death. The majestic white birds, which are nearly the size of a Smart Car when they unfurl their black-tipped wings, were dropping dead along the Texas Gulf Coast. That winter was one of the driest the state has ever seen, and a lack of freshwater in the whoopers’ habitat near Aransas Pass resulted in a choked food supply and 23 whooper casualties. It was the largest single-winter decline in the species’ population, and admirers of the imposing bird came together to protect the fragile species.
A year later, a coalition of environmentalists, businesses and local governments sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, blaming the state agency for the unprecedented spike in whooper deaths. The group, called the Aransas Project, claimed the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing too much water to be withdrawn from the two river basins that feed the whoopers’ habitat. The group argued that two of the whoopers’ dietary staples—blue crabs and wolfberries—had dwindled from lack of freshwater inflow into the estuaries of San Antonio Bay.
In mid-March, federal District Court Judge Janis Jack ruled that TCEQ’s inattention to the whoopers was responsible for the 23 deaths. That amounted to 8.5 percent of the wild flock, which nests and breeds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and winters in Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Jack ordered TCEQ to stop issuing any new water rights and told the agency to write a habitat conservation plan to ensure enough freshwater reaches the coast. (TCEQ quickly secured a stay from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.)
If Jack’s ruling stands on appeal, it could upend Texas’ system of allocating water rights.
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IN A RURAL TOWN IN East Texas, a battle is being waged between a multinational energy corporation and an alliance of rural landowners and environmental activists.
A gravel road leads to the battleground. Towering oaks punctuate the gray October sky and the damp ground is overgrown with moss. It’s a fairy tale-like scene, marred by yellow police tape and the grating of heavy machinery slicing through trees and heaving up soil.
This forest near Winnsboro is the unlikely epicenter of a growing movement to halt the Keystone XL pipeline, slated to bring oil stripped from the tar sands of Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. In an effort to stop the steady progress of the pipeline, protesters have taken to the trees—living on wooden platforms 80 feet in the air. Their platforms dot the tree canopy within an easement obtained by TransCanada, the corporation building the pipeline.
The tree-sitters have been living in this tree village, which they’ve dubbed “Middle Earth,” for a month. Their world is confined to the 4-by-6-foot platforms and the ropes connecting them. They’re able to zipline between platforms, but the structures only offer enough room to sit or lay. If they want to stretch their legs, they use a catwalk—nicknamed “Helm’s Deep”—that extends 100 feet across the tree village’s northern boundary. Below, a police officer asks anyone who approaches the easement for identification and waits to arrest any protesters who might come down.
In this increasingly tense showdown, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised to build Keystone XL himself if elected to curb U.S. dependence on foreign oil. On the other side of the debate, environmentalists view stopping the pipeline as essential to keeping vast amounts of carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere. And landowners, farmers and even some tea party types up and down the pipeline route are raising a host of objections, from potential contamination of aquifers to the trampling of private-property rights.
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Last year, 941 new international parental kidnapping cases were reported to the Office of Children’s Issues at the U.S. State Department, which tracks abductions and helps inform parents about how to retrieve their children.
These international abduction cases have become more common in recent years. There were 43 percent more cases in 2009 than in 2007, though the numbers have dropped slightly since then. Mexico has remained the destination country in about one-third of all cases. But these numbers only offer a snapshot of the problem—experts say many cases go unreported to both agencies.
Although there are international legal means to address abductions, there’s still not a timely or foolproof solution for the “left-behind” parents, as U.S. government officials call them, to retrieve their children. Most parents don’t know where to seek help, and many law enforcement agencies don’t know how to—or choose not to—help them.