ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
And we begin this hour with one of the biggest energy issues facing President Obama in the coming year - the Keystone XL pipeline. The president will have to decide whether to approve the pipeline after rejecting an application for it this past January. It's supposed to carry tar sands oil from Canada all the way to refineries and ports in the Gulf of Mexico, significantly expanding American access to oil from this continent.
Environmentalists are vowing to stop the pipeline, and pending a decision from the administration, the northern section remains in limbo. But construction on the southern section, which runs through Oklahoma to Texas, has already begun. Homeowners, dozens of them, don't want the pipeline coming through their land. Earlier this year, we met one of them in East Texas, David Daniel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
DAVID DANIEL: You know, my heart just sunk that this is the piece of the property that we fell in love with, and this pipeline would tear all this up.
SIEGEL: Daniel told us that he would pull out all the stops to keep the Keystone pipeline from tearing up his woods. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren went back to Winnsboro, Texas, and found out that sometimes pulling out all the stops is not good enough.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: David Daniel looks a lot different than when I met him a few months ago. His red beard is shaggier. He looks older and a lot more haggard.
DANIEL: I'll take you around where we went before.
SHOGREN: He leads me past a stream that was crystal-clear this summer. When I was here before, you drank the water in front of me.
DANIEL: Yeah. Not going to happen today. It's cloudy, murky, milky, nasty. Wouldn't drink out of it, wouldn't let my dog drink out of it.
SHOGREN: We get to a clearing the size of a four-lane highway. Earth movers are digging trenches. A green pipe 3 feet in diameter stretches as far as we can see. Daniel points out two big stacks of tree trunks - what's left of this swath of his forest. He winces.
When I first met Daniel, he was worried about losing the big, old trees he loves and about what would happen to his family if a pipeline carrying thick, dirty crude burst. He had lots of questions the pipeline company wouldn't answer. He also was keeping a secret from me.
DANIEL: You couldn't see it last time because of the canopy was really full.
SHOGREN: So we walked right by it.
SHOGREN: The leaves have fallen off his oak trees, so now when I look straight up, I see tree houses and platforms eight stories above the ground, all connected to each other by wires and ropes. This complex stretches as far as a big city block. Think of it as an airborne fortress. Here's where Daniel mounted his last stand against the pipeline.
He didn't have any money to fight in the courts, but he did have skills very few people have. Daniel used to work for a circus and rigged the high wire that he'd ride a motorcycle across. This is a guy who used to light himself on fire and then drop 50 feet onto an air cushion. Building the series of tree houses took months, and it shows just how desperate he was to stop the pipeline.
DANIEL: Popped into my head a long time ago, actually. If I had to climb my butt on top of a tree and sit there, I would.
SHOGREN: Around September, the pipeline company spied the tree houses. David Dodson represents TransCanada.
DAVID DODSON: Actually we learned from the air. We have an aerial patrol that flies the right of way, looking for any changes. And lo and behold, one day there were blue tarps and wires up in the trees.
SHOGREN: And when TransCanada's crew arrived to start construction, Daniel was there to block them. TransCanada sued him for preventing its work, seeking up to half a million dollars in damages, and a local judge put a restraining order on him.
DODSON: To get him to allow us rightfully and lawfully onto the easement.
SHOGREN: So lots of people have heard about the controversy over the northern section of the Keystone XL pipeline. That section is still waiting approval from the federal government, but TransCanada's Dodson points out that President Obama has endorsed the southern stretch of the pipeline.
DODSON: I mean, America needs energy, and it needs energy security, and that's what this project is about.
SHOGREN: TransCanada's lawsuit knocked the fight out of David Daniel. He struck a secret agreement with the company. Now he's hardly allowed to talk to me. So he never actually got to protest in his trees, but the protest went on without him. Hi.
GRACE CAGLE: Hi.
SHOGREN: What's your name?
CAGLE: My name's Grace Cagle.
SHOGREN: She's coming towards me from the biggest tree house. She traverses from one tree to another on cables and ropes, climbs down a cable ladder and bounces off a trunk to land on a platform about 10 feet above the ground.
CAGLE: I'm putting on my other climbing device so that if the cops try and come over, I can get out out of arm's reach. They all just watch me rappel. I just don't want to get arrested.
SHOGREN: Early in her protest, Cagle did get arrested and spent a night in jail. She's one of a couple of dozen protesters taking turns living in Daniel's trees. TransCanada calls them ecoterrorists and, because of them, put 24-hour security guards around the pipeline's route.
Last spring, right after Cagle graduated from North Texas University, she helped form a group called the Tar Sands Blockade. They were looking for a place to stage a protest and sought out David Daniel. She says Daniel's trees are just one of a bunch of reasons she's against tar sands oil. To get it out of the ground, companies clear cut forests in Canada and use lots of energy, so it has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional crude.
CAGLE: Like I watched YouTube videos about it, and it just broke my heart. And I was like, this makes no sense. Why are they doing this?
SHOGREN: Cagle says she's spent 17 days, on and off, up in Daniel's trees. She's had some really difficult moments. Remember, these platforms are really high. That's to make it hard to pluck out the protesters. Her worst moment involved a huge machine with a giant claw for ripping out trees.
CAGLE: And they drove this machine straight up to the base of the tree that I was in. And I was like, oh my God, they're going to kill me.
SHOGREN: She jumped out onto a rope between two trees and hung there from her harness, about 80 feet above the ground.
CAGLE: And I watched them there cut down the forest around me, and I sat there just like totally vulnerable, like dangling in the air, and it was like the hardest thing I've ever done.
SHOGREN: It didn't stop TransCanada. The company just moved its pipeline over, about 100 feet. It did save the patch of forest closest to Daniel's house. It's all he could get. University of California Davis energy expert Amy Jaffe says the efforts weren't as futile as they seem.
AMY MYERS JAFFE: The young woman who went up in the trees should feel happy. She might not have been able to block the pipeline, but she certainly sent the message to Alberta producers.
SHOGREN: Jaffe says because of such protests, oil companies in Canada are working on technologies to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint. As for David Daniel's plight, Jaffe says...
JAFFE: It feels very invasive, but the reality is that it happens all around the United States. It's not limited to just Texas. I mean, the bottom line is it's public good because we use so much oil in this country that we cannot afford in our current lifestyle to turn down infrastructure. We're all participating in that by getting in our car.
SHOGREN: These pipelines are coming in because of America's thirst for oil. Jaffe says if we want to limit stories like David Daniel's in the future, we have to figure out how to use less of it. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.