Protesters against Keystone XL and oil sands take to the links

You’ve got to give this much to the protesters who operate under the banner of the Tar Sands Blockade: they can’t be accused of shoddy planning.

This past weekend, one of the sign carriers at the Professional Golf Association’s Valero Open in San Antonio, sponsored by (obviously) Valero, suddenly revealed himself to be in fact an anti-oil protester by changing the wording on the sign he was carrying. Presumably before he made the change, the sign showed that some golfer was 7 strokes under par for the round; after the switch, it marked a protest against what the Tar Sands Blockade calls tar sands rather than oil sands.

Think about how this must have occurred. This individual, Douglas Fahlbusch, had to answer the call for volunteers to serve the tournament. These sorts of positions are generally filled by people who like to be out on the course, surrounded by some of the world’s best players. They also might be connected to the charitable organization that is the beneficiary of the profits from PGA tournaments.

Presumably, Fahlbusch needed to pass some sort of background check, though it couldn’t have been too rigorous if the organizers missed the fact that he appears to be a dedicated anti-oil green. It’s also possible that the organizers couldn’t have imagined the plans that the Tar Sands Blockade had for the tournament.

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It isn’t clear if Saturday was the only day of the tournament in which Fahlbusch carried a sign, but if he was there more than one day, it means he hoisted that sign for many, many holes, biding his time while waiting for his grand entrance on to the 18th green of the tournament’s penultimate day. Given that the 18th hole always attracts the largest crowds, and attracts them mostly on the weekend days of the tournament, Fahlbusch knew where to make his protest.

In short, this was not the act of some raving nut. Douglas Fahlbusch knew what he wanted to do, and he clearly planned it for weeks if not months. You can see his actions here (noting that this was put up by the protesters, so it is essentially as seen through the eyes of the group.)

We at Platts are quite familiar with this. At a conference we held in late February in Houston, during a speech by an executive with TransCanada, the address was suddenly interrupted by a protester who came in through a service entrance just to the left of and behind the podium. After he demanded everybody’s attention–which he certainly got–it became clear there was going to be a little problem in removing him quickly: he had used a very thick bicycle lock to chain himself to the frame holding up the screen where presentation were displayed. The room was cleared, and both the hotel security and local police removed the protester’s lock with a device that can only be described as very large and very foreboding.

Stop and consider what this protester did to get himself in position to take such an action. (And we won’t identify him by name; he’s already gotten enough publicity.)

First, he needed to learn that there was a TransCanada official speaking in Houston that day. Then he needed to find out what hotel conference room the event was in; learn the map of the service corridors to come through the service door; know that there would be a large screen there with a frame where the lock could be attached; get through the door, lock himself up and start his speech fast enough to succeed before anybody could stop him; and prior to that be brazen enough to strut through those service corridors where presumably some hotel staff member might have stopped him and asked him who the heck he was.

On top of everything, the protestor at our meeting, in a sort of bizarre way, was relatively articulate, even if his arguments were of the typical “profiteer…environmental destroyer…etc.” type. He really wasn’t screaming in the sense of that word implying irrationality. It was more like bellowing. In short, this was not the work of a rank amateur.

(Of course, the reaction at both the conference and the golf tournament was more civil than what happened several years ago when Greenpeace attempted to disrupt trading on the floor of the International Petroleum Exchange. The account of that bloody encounter is here.)

The movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline has gone far beyond what anybody at TransCanada ever could have envisioned when it was first proposed. At Platts’ The Barrel talk at the recent AFPM meeting in San Antonio, a panel of experts all had different views on whether the line would be approved or rejected in the coming months. Ask 10 people in the oil business and you’ll get 10 opinions. (Given the recent ExxonMobil spill in Arkansas, those 10 opinions today might be different than they would have been a week ago.)

But if the protesters lose, and Keystone XL gets an Obama administration OK, it certainly isn’t for lack of trying or organization. They’re highly organized, and they know exactly what they’re doing.

(Editors note: the original has been changed to reflect that the incident took place on Saturday rather than Sunday.)

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  1. James Reynolds at April 15, 2013 6:41 am

    John, The Security Coordinator handling the easement clearance had great intelligence on KXL Blockade once they set up their treehouse in Wood County. The vast majority of KXL Blockaders arrested sang like canaries once in Police custody, and I believe some non LEO Security Consultants were able to infiltrate their group, providing info on what was about to come down. These Tree Huggers aren’t that smart. TransCanada just needs to spend the money keeping tabs on these clowns.

  2. John Kingston at April 9, 2013 11:22 pm

    I’m not really sure who my “ilk” is, given that I don’t work for an oil company, and I won’t be at OTC. And I did not offer any threats. But I was looking out on the calendar for big upcoming oil events,and OTC is a few weeks away. It seems if you want to protest the oil industry, what better place to do it? Admission is low cost, there are exhibits outside (and the Tar Sands Blockade’s practice of bolting themselves to large structures would have plenty of opportunities), and the sort of planning that you need to infiltrate a PGA event or a private conference isn’t required. Just get off the light rail, walk through the parking lot at Reliance Center, and launch a demonstratoin. I would think the Tar Sands Blockade would very much want to demonstrate at OTC, in front of thousands of oil industry people.

  3. John Kingston at April 9, 2013 4:50 pm

    I don’t think all volunteers at a PGA event should be put through a political purity test. That’s nonsense. What I am saying is that given the determination and creativity of the anti-Keystone (specifically) and anti-oil (in general) movement, anything that might provide a platform for that type of demonstration should be viewed by the event’s security forces through that perspective. They should probably figure that something like what happened at the Valero Open is likely, rather than unusual. But there would have to be an oil tie. I can’t imagine the protesters heading down to Hilton Head later this month for the RBC Heritage tournament. I wasn’t able to make the CERAWeek event this year, but I am fairly certain that security was probably stepped up.

    I guess the protesters might target the OTC meeting in Houston in early May, but the restraint they found at the Valero Open, or at the Platts conference, might not necessarily hold at a meeting of tens of thousands of people whose livelihood is provided by the oil and gas industry. Let’s see if they perform their political theater at a venue where they are likely to find resistance more in line with what the Greenpeace protesters found on the floor of the IPE, rather than people more formally restrained in their response.

    • Panda at April 9, 2013 7:43 pm


      Are you suggesting that you and your ilk are looking for a fight at the OTC meeting in Houston? Are you carefully picking your words so that you suggest there will be violence without actually saying it?

      Tar Sands Blockade is no stranger to violence – it has been used against us time and time again. The Police, who have been bought by TransCanada, have pepper sprayed, tasered, and brutalized people of all ages and backgrounds. Your threats, however thinly veiled they are, will not stop us. We are on the right side of history. We will win.

      See you soon. I hope.

      • Sherif at April 19, 2014 12:02 pm

        A quick check of Google News gets about 10 hits for this story in the United States. The Washington Post and Boston Herald and a few weekly asvirteders think the topic is worth acknowledging. Apparently, ecological destruction for oil is no problem as long as it happens in another country. Oil extraction from shale or tar sands is nasty no matter how you do it. As opposed to extraction in a place like ANWR, which can be done without effect on the surface environment.

    • Rick at April 13, 2013 7:04 pm

      Mr. Kingston, you wrote that a rigorous background check should have revealed that “the fact that [Mr. Fahlbusch] appears to be a dedicated anti-oil green.” If that isn’t a call for screening someone’s politics, it’s hard to know what is. Your reply seems to clarify that you only suggest this if an event criticizes a corporate sponsor, particularly one in the oil field. That doesn’t seem much better.

      How do you suggest that such checks be conducted? A full scan of all of a person’s statements on social media? Interviews with friends and family? Do you think that this should extend beyond oil companies? After all, what if a protester from MADD tried to (gasp) display a sign at a concert sponsored by a brewery? Or a foreclosed homeowner tried to express an opinion at a ballgame in a stadium named for a big bank? And do you think that the athletes/performers should be screened too? It would be easier to stick with the volunteers, but really, can you be too careful?

      Now, I suppose that it might be that instead of going the full Orwell, the oil industry could consider why they’re attracting so much legitimate ire, and address the issues instead of trying to quash the objections. But that’s probably crazy talk.

  4. Robert Godfrey at April 9, 2013 3:21 pm

    Author John Kingston ominously indicates one’s political beliefs, rather than previous conduct, ought to be enough to ban a person from acceptance as a volunteer at a PGA event.

    Previous public conduct is an appropriate test, not one’s politics. And, perhaps such a test was used, but the author only speculates.

    Mr. Kingston has done the oil industry no favors by advocating his version of “political purity.”

  5. Panda at April 7, 2013 6:12 pm

    This happened on Saturday, not Sunday.

    And you’re right, we do know what we’re doing. This will not stop until you do.


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