Heard about the FBI Tracking of Keystone XL Activists? It’s Worse than You Thought.

The energy industry is now firmly hitched to the national security state.

This is a sneak peak from our forthcoming Spring edition. If you value dogged reporting like this, please become a subscriber today.

In August 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit distributed an intelligence bulletin to all field offices warning that environmental extremism would likely become an increasing threat to the energy industry. The eight-page document argued that, even though the industry had encountered only low-level vandalism and trespassing, recent “criminal incidents” suggested that environmental extremism was on the rise. The FBI concluded: “Environmental extremism will become a greater threat to the energy industry owing to our historical understanding that some environmental extremists have progressed from committing low-level crimes against targets to more significant crimes over time in an effort to further the environmental extremism cause.”

collage showing demonstrators, background a redacted report mentioning terrorist actsoriginal photo John Duffy

Not long after the bulletin was distributed, a private security firm providing intelligence reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security cited the FBI document in order to justify the surveillance of anti-fracking groups. The same security firm concluded that the “escalating conflict over natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania” could lead to an increase in “environmentalist activity or eco-terrorism.”

Since the 2010 FBI assessment was written, the specter of environmental extremism has been trotted out by both law enforcement and energy-industry security teams to describe a wide variety of grassroots groups opposed to the continued extraction of fossil fuels. In 2011, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP ) published a report titled, “Environmental Criminal Extremism and Canada’s Energy Sector.” The RCMP warned that environmental extremism posed a “clear and present criminal threat” to the energy industry. While both the FBI and RCMP reports make an effort to distinguish between lawful protest and criminal activity, they often conflate the two – in the RCMP report the terms “violence” and “direct action” are used interchangeably – and suggest opposition to the energy industry will lead to extremism. (The FBI’s Counterterrorism Division declined to answer questions about the 2010 bulletin.)

Yet even as the resistance to “extreme energy projects” has grown in size and scope, there is little evidence to support the breathless warnings about “eco-terrorism.” There has been no upward spiral in criminality among environmental activists. To the contrary, arson, property destruction, and other acts of violence most closely associated with the radical animal rights movement of the 1980s and 1990s have become all but nonexistent. According to figures compiled by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland, there has been only a handful of incidents defined as eco-terrorism since 2010. In fact, between 2010 and 2013, the latest year for which the GTD has published figures, out of a total of 54 terror incidents in the United States, five were attributed to the Animal Liberation Front. The last recorded incident carried out by the Earth Liberation Front – the bulldozing of two radio transmission towers in Washington – was in 2009. Earth First! hasn’t appeared in the database since 1994.

thumbnail of a document
From the RCMP report

Instead, environmentalists have largely relied on classic social change strategies such as choreographed nonviolent civil disobedience, carefully planned protests, and divestment from the fossil fuel industry. “Overall we’ve seen a decline in activity, in terms of violent criminal activity” among environmentalists, an FBI intelligence analyst told The Washington Post in 2012.

Nevertheless, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and many state law enforcement agencies continue to promote the idea that environmental extremism is on the rise. The oil and gas industry is spending more on security than it ever has. According to a 2013 report by Frost & Sullivan, a marketing research and consulting company, annual spending on global oil and gas infrastructure security is expected to top $30 billion in just a few years. (In comparison, $30 billion is roughly what South Korea spends on defense annually.) “Surveillance will continue to dominate the oil and gas infrastructure security market,” a summary of the report states.

At the same time, numerous intelligence-sharing networks between the private sector and law enforcement have been established at every level of government, giving rise to an unprecedented energy-intelligence complex. They range from project-specific and regional networks like the Nebraska Information Analysis Center’s Keystone Pipeline Portal community and the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee, to federal programs like the FBI’s Oil and Natural Gas Crime Issues Special Interest Group and the Department of Homeland Security’s Oil and Natural Gas Sector Coordinating Council. These public-private partnerships, coupled with a revolving door between intelligence agencies and the more lucrative energy industry, have created a new kind of foe for the environmental movement. The fossil fuel industry is now an economic behemoth firmly hitched to the national security state.

It is true that environmentalists pose a threat to the energy industry – just not in the way the FBI or RCMP believe. The threat to the industry is existential and economic, not extremist. If the movement to end our reliance on fossil fuels prevails, the oil and gas industry will lose trillions of dollars in forecast profits. According to an estimate by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, if we hope to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, the energy sector would have to leave more than $20 trillion worth of fossil fuels in the ground. “The oil and gas industry is doing everything they can to ensure they’re in business for the next 30 to 50 years and doing so at a time when we should be, as a nation, collectively figuring out how to stop using those same fossil fuels over the next ten years,” says Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.

Conflict between fossil fuel interests and environmentalists is inevitable. But as the contest becomes ever more stark, there seems to be little effort to distinguish between lawful political activism and illegal activities. The fossil fuel industry’s reasonable concerns about the strength of its political opponents have morphed into a kind of paranoia, one that threatens to criminalize constitutionally protected dissent.

In the years since the FBI and RCMP reports, unconventional oil and gas development has been met with sustained protest, from small scale tree sits and encampments to massive nationwide demonstrations. The opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is only the most high-profile example of resistance to the fossil fuel industry. The term “Blockadia” has been used to describe the loose network of citizens seeking to disrupt the continued exploitation of fossil fuels. Tactics vary depending on the region and political backdrop, but the emphasis has been on nonviolent civil disobedience, legal action, and ballot measures to hamper pipeline projects, ban fracking, and prevent or slow down tar sands extraction. A handful of pipeline projects ­– including Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain and Williams Companies’ Constitution pipelines – have been stymied. In mid-December, after several years of intense organizing, lobbying, and direct action campaigns, New York became the first state with substantial shale gas reserves to ban fracking. Towns in Colorado, Texas, and Ohio have passed restrictions that limit oil and gas drilling.

Such successes have emboldened these groups and inspired action elsewhere. (Of course it should be noted that oil and gas development has hardly been halted; it continues apace throughout North America.) Rather than lead to an increase in criminal activity, as the FBI predicted, opposition to the oil and gas industry has, in some ways, become more mainstream. “Five years ago you would have never seen the faces of rural farmers and ranchers and tribal leaders on the front lines of climate actions,” says Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, an environmental group opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. “This unlikely Cowboy and Indian Alliance that is also working shoulder to shoulder with big green groups is changing the way America looks at the issue of land, water, and climate change.”

But the new face of the environmental movement seems not to have registered with an industry intent on steamrolling its critics. In 2011, in comments that have been widely cited, a spokesman for Anadarko Petroleum described the anti-fracking movement as an “insurgency” and suggested that industry insiders download the US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual as a guide to dealing with it. Less well known is the fact that Anadarko has built up a team of former intelligence operatives to combat what it views as an insurrection. The company’s southwest regional security manager was an officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration, where he was involved in undercover work. Another Anadarko security manager, LC Wilson, was regional commander of the Texas Department of Public Safety from 2009 to 2011 and oversaw law enforcement statewide. Anadarko has also been involved in the creation of at least two Oilfield Crime Committees, one in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, both of which are headed by former law enforcement officials. The South Texas Oilfield Crime Committee and the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee have gathered intelligence on environmental activists and routinely exchange information with law enforcement.

Anadarko is not alone. Most large energy companies have security teams run by former FBI, Secret Service, or law enforcement personnel. The director of corporate security at Devon Energy, for example, was a special agent with the Secret Service for 14 years. Chevron’s chief security officer was the former head of the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. And BP’s head of Government and Political Affairs from 2007 to 2012 worked for MI6, Britain’s top spy agency.

In most cases these security teams have been deployed to manage crises overseas. In Indonesia, for example, ExxonMobil ran its own intelligence operations and consulted regularly with the country’s military leaders as it sought to protect its assets amid destabilizing political conditions. In 2012 The Guardian reported that Shell Oil maintained a 1,200-person police force plus a network of undercover informants in Nigeria and spent tens of millions of dollars on security in the region.

artwork depicting shouting young people, official documents in the backgroundoriginal photo Stephen Melkisethian

As shale oil and gas development has expanded in North America, the frontlines of the energy wars are no longer overseas, but rather in places like Nebraska, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Range Resources, one of the largest drillers in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, has admitted to hiring veterans of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with experience in psychological warfare – or Psyops – to engage with local communities.

Neither Anadarko nor ExxonMobil nor Range Resources responded to requests for comment.

Even as the energy industry has beefed up its own in-house intelligence operations, it has established increasingly close ties with law enforcement agencies. This is partly a result of the post-9/11 national security state and the premium placed on information sharing. The Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Council (CIPAC), established by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006, holds quarterly meetings to facilitate information sharing between the private sector and government agencies. (Meetings are exempt from the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which means there is no public oversight. Indeed, the Critical Infrastructure Information Act of 2002 stipulates that information voluntarily submitted by industry to the DHS or DOE is protected from public disclosure.) Within CIPAC there is an Oil and Natural Gas Sector Coordinating Council and an Energy Government Coordinating Council. According to minutes from an August 2013 CIPAC meeting, the DHS has been working to provide more security clearances to the energy industry. “Currently DHS is working to enhance policies to share more classified information both cyber and non-cyber related,” the document states. Anadarko, Kinder Morgan, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute are frequent participants and sponsors of CIPAC meetings.

In addition to CIPAC there is a Homeland Security Information Sharing Network for the Oil and Gas Industry (HSIN-ONG), a web-based platform that allows companies to communicate with each other and with law enforcement. It also gives them access to Suspicious Activity Reports and other intelligence related information. Around the same time that the information-sharing network was being created, the Department of Justice launched its National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative to “improve the sharing of suspicious activity reports among state, local, tribal, and federal law-enforcement organizations, as well as private sector entities.”

Intelligence-sharing systems also have been developed at the state level. The Nebraska Information Analysis Center (one of more than 70 Homeland Security “fusion centers”) has its own network that focuses on “possible unlawful tactics and techniques of individuals/groups opposed to Keystone XL pipeline.” According to documents obtained by Earth Island Journal through a public records request, oil infrastructure company TransCanada has its own page in the HSIN portal where suspicious activity reports can be posted. TransCanada representatives, FBI agents, county attorneys, local sheriffs, and the US assistant attorney general all have access to the Keystone pipeline network.

Despite the numerous federal, state, and regional information-sharing networks established during the past decade, the industry has been reluctant to participate in programs that might be subject to public oversight. Thus last summer the oil and gas industry announced the creation of its own information sharing and analysis center, or ISAC, which allows member companies to submit intelligence anonymously and is exempt from public disclosure.

The industry’s fear of transparency is part of a larger pattern. Oil and gas firms often express alarm about having their facilities photographed or filmed by citizen watchdogs, which can lead to official investigations. For example, in 2011 the Rocky Mountain Energy Security Group (yet another regional intelligence sharing network) issued a security report that described activists in Pavillion, Wyoming who had photographed a natural gas processing facility. The report, which was disseminated to law enforcement and security professionals in the industry, defined the behavior as “suspicious activity” and said that the information was being circulated in order to determine “whether the activity has any underlying criminal or terrorism nexus (or intent).”

In recent years the FBI has pursued environmental activists in Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho for little more than taking photographs of oil and gas industry installations. In 2011, after receiving an anonymous tip, the FBI went after Texas activist Ben Kessler, a member of the direct action environmental group Rising Tide North America. In November 2013 and February 2014, a Pennsylvania state trooper and member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force visited anti-fracking activists at their homes in New York and Pennsylvania under the pretext that they had trespassed while taking photos of a gas compressor station. More recently, members of Rising Tide in the Pacific Northwest have been contacted or visited by FBI agents. (The energy companies’ fear of transparency is in some ways similar to the livestock industry’s exposé anxiety, which has led to the passage of so-called ag-gag laws that prohibit the filming of farms and ranches.)

The frontlines of the energy wars are no longer overseas, but rather in places like Nebraska, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

But what happens when the private sector’s assumptions about criminal activity are wrong or misleading? In Pennsylvania the oil and gas industry has driven speculation that environmental organizations were behind several acts of vandalism at or near drilling sites, even though there’s no evidence of any link whatsoever. The unfounded assertion has spilled into the local press. In February 2014, The Williamsport Sun-Gazette in northeast Pennsylvania ran a story about the crimes headlined, “Ecoterror Target: Gas companies bolster security in response to threats.”

Jeff Monaghan, a PhD candidate in Sociology at Queen’s University in Ontario who writes on issues of surveillance, says the RCMP document reflects how deeply intertwined the suspicions of energy companies and intelligence agencies have become. “The broader context of this document is a very, very close working relationship between the Critical Infrastructure Protection team and the energy corporations. As the relationship develops the underlying belief is that environmentalists are first-and-foremost a threat to the economy. It’s really about protecting shared values of economic growth.”

Or, as the RCMP report put it, “Canada’s economic growth … and the objectives of environmentalists are in direct conflict.” Environmental activists wouldn’t disagree with that, especially given the aggressive pro-energy policies of the Harper government. What they take issue with is the highly provocative claim that their opposition to the energy industry will likely lead to criminal activity. As the interests of the state and energy sector become increasingly close, however, this perception is taking hold. Activists worry that it is shaping law enforcement’s approach to the movement and could lead to a crackdown on legal protest.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the industry is trying really hard to paint the environmental movement as fringe or dangerous, because it’s their last resort,” says Catskill Mountainkeeper’s Gillingham. “It’s behavior based on a losing argument.”

The conflict over the Keystone XL pipeline has reinforced the narrative that economic prosperity and environmental protection are mutually exclusive. Pipeline proponents like to paint the opposition as job killers and, yes, extremists. In April 2014, Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, described the pipeline as “a project that is being blocked purely by environmental extremism.” More recently, US Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, called anti-fracking activists campaigning for a moratorium “radical environmentalists.” A major Washington PR firm, Berman and Co., has launched an ad campaign bankrolled by the energy industry called “Big Green Radicals” that seeks to smear high-profile activists.

thumbnail of a document, FBI Bulletin
From the FBI Bulletin

But the demonization of environmental advocates goes far beyond mere polemics. TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, has worked closely with law enforcement along the proposed pipeline route from the very early stages of its development. A certain amount of collaboration with law enforcement is to be expected with any major infrastructure project. But TransCanada has gone further. The company has pressured attorneys general to prosecute environmental activists under terrorism statutes. It has given local law enforcement advance notice of meetings with landowners whom the company describes as hostile. And the company has held workshops with local law enforcement and the FBI, including a daylong “strategy meeting” in Oklahoma with the FBI in 2012.

According to documents obtained by Earth Island Journal, the FBI distributed a bulletin in early 2013 “regarding threat concerns by environmental extremists against the Keystone Pipeline expansion project” to law enforcement across Nebraska. In its strategic plan for 2014-2017, South Dakota Homeland Security identifies what it considers to be extremist enclaves in the state, through which Keystone is proposed to pass. According to the document, “Uranium mining in the southwest part of the state and a proposed oil pipeline in the western part of the state garnered the attention of extremist environmental groups.” The report does not describe or name the groups, their intentions, or tactics. A public records request for additional documents or communication regarding “extremist environmental groups” in South Dakota was denied.

In 2013 Earth Island Journal reported on the infiltration of a Tar Sands Resistance training camp in Oklahoma. Two undercover officers from the Bryan County Sheriff’s office attended the weeklong event and shared intelligence with the Oklahoma Department of Homeland Security Fusion Center. Law enforcement was tipped off and a planned act of civil disobedience was preempted. During that same week TransCanada’s corporate security advisor was in frequent contact with the Oklahoma Fusion Center and made comments on a classified situational awareness bulletin.

In many ways Texas, where the Keystone pipeilne would terminate, is the heart of the American oil and gas industry. Not surprisingly, activists there are routinely harassed by law enforcement and corporate security for nothing more than keeping tabs on the industry. In East Houston, the city’s industrial hub and most polluted neighborhood (Houston itself is one of the most polluted cities in the country), environmental activist and community organizer Bryan Parras has been questioned by the police on several occasions and once was contacted by a Coast Guard special agent assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Houston. The organization he helps run with his father, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (or TEJAS), has been closely watched. Parras frequently takes activists and journalists on what he calls “toxic tours” – a survey of the neighborhood’s refineries, chemical plants, and shipping ports. He’s made a point of documenting the air pollution caused by the flaring at the refineries that flank the neighborhood. He says the images “compel people to action.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that the industry is trying to paint the environmental movement as fringe or dangerous.”

They’ve also made Parras a subject of interest for industry and law enforcement. He is routinely questioned by the police or harassed by security representatives from Valero Energy, a major refining company and one of the industries Parras monitors. In 2013 Parras got a text from a friend, Tish Stringer, saying that an agent had visited her home and wanted to know about her relationship with him. The Coast Guard special agent, David Pileggi, told Stringer he’d been tipped off by Valero.

“It’s nothing new,” Parras says. “Since 9/11 we’ve been harassed repeatedly and pulled over for taking pictures or video of the facilities.”

In an emailed statement, Bill Day, vice president of communications at Valero, said the Houston refinery is designated by Homeland Security as “critical infrastructure” and therefore must meet enhanced security requirements. “One of those requirements,” he wrote, “is that when we see people taking photos or video of our facilities, we ascertain the purpose of that activity and then report it to DHS.” According to Shauna Dunlap, media coordinator for the FBI’s Houston Division, photographing and videotaping of critical infrastructures “can be a precursor of potential criminal activity.” The Joint Terrorism Task Force, she says, is “obligated to look into each and every suspicious activity report.”

This kind of surveillance and intimidation, Parras says, is particularly chilling in an area with a large number of undocumented residents. Not only are they vulnerable to threats of deportation, but also they’re quite literally at the crossroads of environmental destruction and the risks associated with climate change. East Houston is home to a disproportionate number of the city’s largest sources of industrial pollution, four major highways, and the shipping channel that feeds into the Port of Houston. If built, the Keystone XL pipeline would terminate in East Houston; Valero has a contract with TransCanada to receive most of the oil. “On the basis of location alone these neighborhoods appear far more vulnerable to health risks than others in Greater Houston,” a 2006 study commissioned by the mayor’s office concluded. In addition, rising sea levels threaten to inundate the heavily industrialized shoreline. “It puts us at even higher risk because we’re on the coast,” says Parras. “All these facilities are right on the water.”

image of a costumed demonstrator being led away by a uniformed police person, documents in the backgroundoriginal photo Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN)

In many ways, for activists like Parras the last line of defense lies in taking photos, documenting the impacts of industrial pollution, and simply bearing witness. TEJAS hasn’t even engaged in civil disobedience or direct action, he says. Still, his organization is on Valero’s watch list. TEJAS organizers have been followed and photographed or videoed by Valero security personnel. Local teachers who joined Parras on one of his toxic tours were bullied into deleting photos and video they had taken of the refinery. Journalists he has shown around have been threatened by Valero that they’ll be reported to the FBI.

Do you like enterprising journalism on the environment like this? Make a contribution to our investigative fund.

In the eyes of the oil and gas industry this is the new environmental extremism. And that view is being shared with law enforcement at every level.

The intimidation and surveillance have had an impact. Parras says his advocacy has been compromised by Valero’s scrutiny of his organization and the refinery’s close relationship with law enforcement. “It’s difficult to get neighbors to want to engage and speak out,” he says.

Adam Federman, a Journal contributing editor, covers the intersection between law enforcement and the environment.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

The Latest

Are Black Vultures Being Scapegoated for Livestock Deaths?

New bill would make it easier for ranchers to kill the protected birds, despite insufficient data on vulture predation.

Ian Rose

To Save Native Plant Communities, Diversify the Field

So says ecologist working to save one of California’s most endangered ecosystems and promote LGBTQ+ visibility in science.

Anna Marija Helt

Biden Attacks Republican Climate Deniers as He Unveils Extreme-Heat Rules

President hails proposal to protect millions of Americans from the nation's top weather-related killer.

Dharna Noor The Guardian

Buying Baja

In Mexico's iconic peninsula, locals fight rich outsiders and rampant development that threaten to transform the coast and dry up aquifers.

Krista Langlois Photos and video by Kristina Blanchflower

Guardians of
the Forest

The rural community of Segunda y Cajas in northern Peru leads efforts to protect one of the most biodiverse areas and vital sources of water for the region.

Leslie Moreno Custodio

A Radical Way to Recover Forest

Deforestation has left scars in Ecuador’s San Andres Valley. But in one village, residents are giving nature a respite by protecting their micro forests.

Jonathan Palma Lavayen