Indigenous-led resistance to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline threatens big oil’s last stand

Water protectors in Minnesota are kicking off what could be the climate movement's next massive, sustained direct action campaign.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

When Dawn Goodwin went down to the bank of the upper Mississippi River on Dec. 4, she just wanted to spend some time honoring the traditions of her people. Goodwin was part of a small group of Mississippi Band Anishinaabe women visiting a traditional teaching lodge, or waaginoogan, near where Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 oil pipeline would cross under the river. Upon reaching the waaginoogan, she was distressed to see the stumps of clear-cut trees and other damage where Enbridge had cut a path for the pipeline. Gazing at the destruction, Goodwin felt moved to act.

“I thought, I needed to pray here,” Goodwin said. “I wandered off toward one of the trees they had cut. I sat down to pray and visit with it.”

Although Goodwin has been fighting to stop Line 3 for years, in that moment she had no thought of engaging in a direct action. All around her were severed stumps, and a tree feller stood idle. “The machine was turned off, so I knew I was safe,” Goodwin said. Only when a sheriff’s department officer came toward her through the bushes did she realize she was technically trespassing in the pipeline construction zone. Because of her actions, nearby work had to stop.

“They told me I was in the construction right-of-way,” Goodwin explained. “I said, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t even thinking about that.’” Then it occurred to her this might be an opportunity for a powerful act of protest. “A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I actually need to pray longer.’ So I sat there until dark, praying and singing.”

By nightfall, Goodwin had caused another small delay for the Line 3 pipeline, a massive fossil fuel infrastructure project beset by half a decade of grassroots opposition. After years of lawsuits, protests and hearings, work along the pipeline route began on the first of this month. The nonviolent resistance it immediately encountered kicks off what is likely to be one of the next massive, sustained direct action campaigns in the U.S. climate movement.

Dawn Goodwin praying near a tree feller, after a sheriff’s department officer told her she was trespassing on the pipeline construction zone. (Twitter/MikeRollin2)

Defending White Earth from the tar sands

Goodwin traces her concern over environmental problems back to second grade, when she learned about water pollution in school. The issue hit home because of the connection she felt to her ancestors’ land. “I’ve felt in tune with my environment all my life,” said Goodwin, who grew up harvesting berries with her mother and other relatives every summer.

Decades later, Goodwin began hearing about Canada’s tar sands extraction project, one of the largest and most destructive industrial undertakings in history. When energy infrastructure giant Enbridge proposed building Line 3 near the reservation of the White Earth Nation, to which Goodwin belongs, she knew she had to join the campaign to stop it.

Line 3 is actually the second major Enbridge project Goodwin has helped oppose. In 2013, the company applied for a permit to build the Sandpiper pipeline, which would have pumped oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation across Minnesota and into Wisconsin. Sandpiper was defeated when Enbridge withdrew its application in the face of stiff public opposition three years later. But in 2015, the company also applied to build Line 3, which follows a similar proposed route through Minnesota. However, instead of running east to the Bakken, it would connect with the Canadian tar sands to the north.

While Enbridge calls this pipeline the “Line 3 Replacement,” Goodwin argues the proposed pipeline must be regarded as a new project. An existing pipeline, also named Line 3, was built in 1961 and cuts through Minnesota en route from the Canadian border to Wisconsin. It has been plagued by leaks and spills, and few people deny it needs to be repaired or taken out of operation. However, the project Enbridge is billing as a “replacement” would in fact be a larger pipeline designed to carry more oil, which would diverge from the existing Line 3 route at Clearbrook, Minnesota and follow a new path that skirts the White Earth Reservation. It would be a bigger project with a larger carbon footprint and new environmental impacts. “It is not a replacement, it’s a relocation and expansion,” Goodwin said. “But Enbridge always leaves that part out.”

From the beginning, Enbridge’s plans were opposed by Indigenous water protectors concerned about potential oil spills from the new Line 3 and climate activists alarmed over the project’s carbon impact, which is the equivalent to building 50 new coal plants. Thousands of people have turned out to public hearings, submitted comments and asked Minnesota agencies to deny Enbridge’s application. Still, in late November the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved key permits, allowing Enbridge to begin work on Dec. 1.

As Enbridge clear-cuts along the project right-of-way, it is denuding lands where Anishinaabe peoples have treaty-protected rights to sustainably harvest wild foods. No sooner did this work begin than the company ran up against a new wave of nonviolent resistance.

The resistance spreads

On Dec. 4, Enbridge tree fellers approaching the Mississippi River encountered a platform in the trees where two activists sat blocking the advancing machines’ path. The ongoing tree-sit, meant to prevent Enbridge from drilling a tunnel under the river, is one of many direct action tactics pipeline opponents have been using.

Two days later, tribal elders — including famed Indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke — were cited for “trespassing” after refusing to leave the waaginoogan on the bank of the Mississippi. The following Thursday, two people locked themselves to a truck carrying sections of pipeline to another construction site. Meanwhile, the fight against Line 3 has become a rallying point for climate activists across Minnesota and the nation.

Local resident Tania Aubid and Winona LaDuke visiting the waaginoogan, or teaching lodge, on the bank of the upper Mississippi River. (Twitter/MikeRollin2)

“Even if this pipeline miraculously never leaks, it will still be responsible for staggering amounts of greenhouse gases,” U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said Wednesday, during an online rally against Line 3 attended by around 1,000 people. “Minnesota has made some great commitments to increasing renewable energy usage across the state, but Line 3 alone would undo all that progress and make it impossible to meet our climate goals.”

For a day of action organized by the Stop the Money Pipeline campaign on Friday, activists in more than 60 cities — across 25 states — visited branches of large financial institutions to deliver copies of a letter calling on them to stop financing tar sands projects. In St. Paul, Minnesota, 20 young people blocked the doors to a Chase Bank chanting “Stop Line 3,” holding signs with messages that included “Pipelines kill.”

Protesting pipelines during the age of COVID presents unique challenges, but the Line 3 resistance is finding ways to navigate them. “We ask that people social distance, wear masks, and use hand sanitizer,” Goodwin said. Partly because of COVID concerns, Line 3 resisters so far have not set up a permanent encampment like the one at Standing Rock in 2016. However, they are still encouraging activists who can safely do so to come and participate in protests.

“People can come support us on the front line,” Goodwin said. “We need bodies, we need boots on the ground. They should be self-sufficient and COVID-safe, though.” According to Goodwin, those traveling to Minnesota should know that local motels are rapidly filling to capacity with pipeline workers. Activists coming to support or participate in protests will need to be creative about finding shelter during the cold Minnesota winter.

Line 3 itself poses a serious COVID risk from the thousands of construction workers flooding into rural communities from out of state. “There is no safe way of building a pipeline of this magnitude in a global pandemic,” said Laalitha Surapaneni of Physicians for Social Responsibility. About 200 health professionals have signed a letter calling on Minnesota Gov. Tom Walz to issue a stay on construction as a pandemic emergency measure.

By delaying Enbridge through direct action, activists hope to buy enough time to secure a long-term victory over Line 3. Groups like Stop the Money Pipeline are pressuring President-elect Joe Biden to reverse the federal government’s approval of the project once he is sworn in. There is also still time for state agencies to intervene. At the same time, climate groups around the country are winning victories that make pipelines like Line 3 seem increasingly archaic.

A last stand for the oil industry?

On Dec. 9, as tree sitters continued blocking Line 3’s construction, the New York Comptroller’s office announced that the state’s $226 billion pension fund will divest from oil and gas companies, building on an earlier commitment to exit from coal. New York’s pension plan is now the largest in the world committed to full fossil fuel divestment.

“We are sending a signal to the world that fossil fuels are a thing of the past,” said Hridesh Singh of New York Youth Climate Leaders, or NY2CL, one of the groups that campaigned for divestment. “We must transition into a clean energy economy that doesn’t work just for fossil fuel executives, but for all people. That also means stopping the build-out of new fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Recent victories like the one in New York add to the sense that Enbridge is in a race against time, trying to build Line 3 before oil and gas companies’ misfortunes continue. Earlier this year, the industry suffered a string of defeats and legal setbacks for projects like the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline, and the proposed Atlantic Coast gas pipeline, which developers abandoned in July.

“We know we’re going to beat Big Oil … We have them on the run,” famed climate activist Bill McKibben told participants in the recent online rally. “That’s why what’s happening with Line 3 is so incredibly infuriating, because these are the absolute last gasps of a dying, decadent and disgusting system. If we can stop it even for a little while, then it will never be built.”

Big Oil still has plenty of influence, as shown by its ability to persuade Minnesota’s Democratic governor to support Line 3. Still, as recently as five years ago it was almost unheard of for major pipeline projects to suffer political defeat. Divestment wins like the one in New York reinforce the message that the industry is no longer invincible. “It’s completely counterintuitive to continue building oil infrastructure when we need to move money away from fossil fuels and sunset these dirty industries,” said NY2CL leader Caitlyn Carpenter.

Activists are pushing big banks to follow New York in divesting from companies like Enbridge, which — according to Stop the Money Pipeline — has a $2.1 billion loan up for renewal in March. With such uncertainty in its future, Enbridge can ill-afford any further Line 3 delays. Climate and water protectors are seeking to create that delay with a variety of tactics: direct action, pressure on financial institutions, and more. Yet, perhaps the most powerful weapon of all is the sovereignty of local Indigenous peoples and the treaty rights they hold.

Signs posted near the Line 3 pipeline construction zone. (RISE Coalition)

Asserting treaty rights

“Treaties are the supreme law of the land,” Goodwin said. “All of us, not just Native people, have obligations under the treaties. They are how Minnesota became a state.”

Most of Line 3’s path through Minnesota bisects territory covered under the terms of a series of treaties signed between the U.S. government and different Anishinaabe bands in the mid-1800s. These agreements set aside reservations like White Earth, while also guaranteeing Indigenous peoples’ right to harvest food and practice other traditional activities throughout their ancestral lands. Now, some Anishinaabe leaders are harnessing treaty rights to oppose Line 3.

On Dec. 5, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a stop work order temporarily halting construction at the site of the waaginoogan where Goodwin staged her direct action. In addition to threatening Anishinaabe peoples’ ability to hunt, fish, and harvest plant-based foods, Line 3 endangers cultural sites like this. According to news reports, the Army Corps is now working with tribes to assess the cultural and historical significance of the waaginoogan. Construction at that site cannot continue until this process is complete.

Although the fight against Line 3 has been ongoing for more than five years, the beginning of construction pushed resistance to a new level of intensity that is only likely to increase. If activists succeed, it will be a major win for the climate, but also for the Anishinaabe people who have cared for the affected landscape since time immemorial.

“Minnesotans forget that their homes and workplaces, their favorite restaurants and their schools, are all on treaty land,” Goodwin said. “Now, we descendants of the people who signed those treaties are saying this pipeline goes too far, it’s going to exacerbate climate change and endanger our water. We’re saying no to this — and we expect to be listened to.”


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