DIRECT, Texas — For three generations, the Crawford family has ranched these 600 acres of rolling hills near the Oklahoma and Texas border.
"Nowadays, it’s hard to amass a big, beautiful property like this with a lot of history," said farmer Julia Trigg Crawford, 53.
She worries that history is now in jeopardy, ever since TransCanada started eying her land to build its controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
"When someone comes in and says, 'You’re going to give us part of this land whether you want to or not,' that didn’t sit well," Crawford said.
The Calgary-based company hopes to build a $7 billion pipeline to carry heavy crude, known as tar sands, from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. Although, part of the project has stalled in Washington, TransCanada announced last month it intends to move forward with the 435-mile section of the pipeline that will stretch from Oklahoma to Port Arthur.
It's a move Crawford is now bitterly fighting.
She’s participated in protests in the nation’s capital and is now in a fierce court battle with the company. Her supporters have started an online petition and launched a defense fund, standwithjulia.com.
"It started off as, 'I don’t want it here,' but as I learned more about this, nobody should want it," she said. "We don’t want them using our land and our water as a guinea pig."
The Crawfords first got notice in 2008 that TransCanada was interested in their property. After she declined an initial offer of $7,000, the company bumped the offer to $20,000.
The 36-inch pipeline would slice underground through her property, making it difficult to sell, she says, as well as making the land nearly useless, except for grazing.
Crawford worries about possible environmental damage, since the pipeline will burrow under nearby Bois d’Arc Creek, which is where she gets the water to irrigate her farm.
Archaeological assessments, she said, have found her land is filled with artifacts left by the Caddos, a local American-Indian tribe. She says she often finds arrowheads and pieces of pottery while walking the property.
But the main reason why Crawford is fighting is simply because she doesn’t want it.
"This fight is about property rights," she says. "When a foreign company is allowed to take land from Texas landowners for private gain, that’s the problem."
After trying to work with her at first, TransCanada later simply took her to court to claim eminent domain.
Oil pipelines are considered as vital as highways or power lines. So, the company can declare eminent domain and build the pipe largely where it wishes — as long as it meets federal and state safety rules. The Texas Railroad Commission handles pipeline regulation, but has no role in determining the routes.
Hoping to have the pipeline delivering oil by 2013, TransCanada has been securing land across Texas. In Lamar County alone, the company has filed 12 condemnation suits against reluctant property owners — including the county’s district clerk.
"Your hands are basically tied," said Marvin Ann Patterson.
Since the oil companies enjoy eminent domain power, property owners feel they must eventually accept the offer.
"I don’t think anyone ever willingly wants them to come through," she said.
She tried fighting the Keystone pipeline, but eventually gave in after they offered her an undisclosed amount. Still, she’d prefer the land. The Keystone will be the fifth pipeline cutting through her land.
"It runs diagonally across our property," she said. "You get a second, third, fourth, fifth [pipeline] — you’ve lost a good section of your property, diagonally."
In court documents from Crawford’s case, TransCanada’s attorneys promise not to back down.
"We are not going to have one landowner hold up a multi-billion project that is going to be for the benefit of the public," the company’s lawyer told the court in a February briefing.
The company reminds critics it’s not "taking" the land, but buying — at a fair price — an easement for its pipeline. The landowner legally remains the owner and can continue using the property as they had before.
TransCanada said its reached agreements with 80 percent of the landowners on its Texas route. The company further defends the project by saying it will create about 20,000 jobs and generate more than $20 billion into the United States economy.
Energy experts say when the Keystone pipeline is finished, it should help cut America’s dependence on Middle East oil.
"Bringing it down from Canada is a much more stable source and a much friendlier customer to be buying it from," said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at SMU. "The less we import, the less we’re held hostage to the highs and lows overseas."
Crawford, though, says she’s the one feeling like a hostage. For now, her legal fight against TransCanada continues.
Although, she worries construction could crews arrive on her property any day.
"[TransCanada] has a lot of power, but it’s not given," she said. "It’s assumed, and no one is pushing back. That’s what we’re doing — pushing back."