Stefan Warner is not one to shy away from standing up for his beliefs.
The self-described activist traveled to Iraq to protest the war there before turning his attention to issues closer to home.
Warner, 25, admits a “not-in-my-backyard mentality” spurred him to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil across Oklahoma on its way from Canada to Texas, but his concerns grew as he learned more about the implications of the project.
“I'd heard a lot of awful things about the tar sands industry,” the Harrah native said of companies that produce bitumen from Alberta's oil sands.
The oil sands account for 97 percent of Canada's oil reserves, which are the third largest in the world, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. More than half of the production from the oil sands comes from mining, but most operators, like Oklahoma City's Devon Energy Corp., rely on a process called steam-assisted gravity drainage to harvest the thick oil known as bitumen.
Environmentalists often refer to it as the “world's dirtiest crude.”
“It's nasty stuff, this bitumen that they're getting out of the ground up in Alberta,” Warner said. “This stuff is the consistency of cookie dough. It's not like normal crude oil, even though the industry keeps calling it crude.
“I just realized it's some nasty stuff and I didn't want it coming through Oklahoma.”
Warner said bitumen is harder to clean up than regular crude oil, citing a 2010 spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
“They're still trying to figure out how to clean it up,” he said.
Pipeline developer TransCanada Corp. has been moving diluted bitumen from the oil sands into Oklahoma since February 2011.
The Keystone XL pipeline would bring more oil from Alberta to the storage hub at Cushing on its way to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
TransCanada began building the southern leg of the pipeline, from Cushing to the Houston area, after the Obama administration denied a permit for the $5.3 billion project in 2012. The company still hopes to win approval for the transcontinental pipeline.
The southern leg, dubbed the Gulf Coast Project, is about 80 percent complete, a project spokesman said Thursday. It is expected to be operational by the end of the year.
Warner has been arrested twice since February while protesting construction of the pipeline in Oklahoma as part of the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, a loosely affiliated group opposed to Keystone XL and continued oil sands development.
“There's nothing else I can do but take direct action, so I did,” Warner said. “It felt great.”
Another protester, Oklahoma City resident Bob Waldrop, said it is important to protect the land so it can take care of the people who live on it.
“This pipeline is an enormous attack on the land,” he said in a video posted on the coalition's website in conjunction with his May 13 protest near Wewoka. “Giant earth-moving machines are destroying an entire ecosystem.”
More than a dozen people have been arrested along the pipeline's route across Oklahoma in the past several months.
TransCanada has filed a lawsuit in Atoka County to block further protests.
“We recognize and respect the rights of citizens to express their opinions on public property. However, that right does not allow them to break the law or risk the health and safety of others, including the men and women who are building the Gulf Coast Pipeline,” project spokesman Jim Prescott said Thursday. “When protesters staged their demonstrations on landowners' property and locked themselves to equipment, they were breaking the law by trespassing and jeopardizing their safety and the safety of the workers on site.”
Warner said he intends to continue working against the Keystone XL pipeline and other projects that would transport diluted bitumen from Canada.
He said the “resource extraction industry” is showing no signs of slowing down activities that are destroying planet so he plans to keep opposing them through direct action.