On January 2, 2021, during the first weekend of the New Year, dozens of water protectors gathered to demonstrate and pray along Great River Road near Palisade, Minnesota. They joined in song, protesting a controversial tar sands oil pipeline called Line 3, which is currently being constructed through northern Minnesota and traditional Anishinaabe lands. Ojibwe tribes have helped spearhead the opposition to this pipeline, alongside Indigenous and environmental groups.
A clash with police hours later resulted in the arrest of 14 demonstrators. As one water protector, Shanai Matteson, described the confrontation: “There were more police, and fewer Water Protectors, in an unreasonable show of force by officers … who escalated the situation.”
Footage from the January 2 demonstration. Credit: Kevin Whelan.
This Indigenous-led resistance to the Line 3 pipeline is reminiscent of Standing Rock in North Dakota, where, since 2015, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has led fellow Native and non-Native water protectors in taking a stand against the Dakota Access pipeline, which ultimately went into operation in 2017. Both of these battles over new tar sands pipelines also have featured direct action demonstrations and legal challenges, all with significant stakes for Native rights and sovereignty, the integrity of impacted water bodies and land, and the global climate.
In Minnesota, the fight over Line 3 has dragged on for over six years. Now, with the Canadian-based energy pipeline giant Enbridge Corporation commencing construction, opponents are continuing their resistance on the ground and in the courts.
Pipeline opponents have been battling Enbridge since the company first proposed the Line 3 project in 2014. Enbridge has pitched it as a replacement of an older, corroding pipe built in the 1960s, though the new pipeline will be larger and much of it traverses through a different area compared to the older pipeline. Opponents therefore describe it as a new pipeline rather than a replacement. This new Line 3 project would nearly double the capacity to carry heavy crude, almost a million barrels per day, from the Alberta tar sands fields in Hardisty to the end point over a thousand miles away in Superior, Wisconsin.
The majority of the nearly $3 billion U.S. portion of the pipeline, around 337 miles of it, would run through Minnesota. State regulators like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission have issued key permits for the pipeline, despite expert studies — including a review by the Minnesota Department of Commerce — showing the project is unnecessary and would have harmful and costly impacts, particularly to the environment and to tribal communities.
According to a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) issued by the state last year, the social cost of the project over a 30-year life cycle is estimated at $287 billion — far greater than the roughly $2 billion Enbridge says will flow to the Minnesota economy during construction. This “social cost” is based on the social cost of carbon, or an estimate of societal damages occurring from carbon emissions that drive the climate crisis.
And with a capacity to carry 760,000 barrels per day of heavy crude, the Line 3 pipeline could result in an annual increase of 193 million tons of carbon emissions. “The potential increased [greenhouse gas] emissions associated with the Project would contribute incrementally to global climate change,” the EIS acknowledges.
Experts have crunched the numbers and estimated that the annual carbon intensity of this pipeline is equivalent to the emissions from 50 coal-fired power plants, or to 38 million vehicles on the roads. Indeed, the globe-warming emissions associated with Line 3 would be greater than the emissions from the entire state of Minnesota.
“This is not just another pipeline. It is a tar sands climate bomb,” Minnesota writer Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed voicing opposition to the Line 3 project. Another prominent Indigenous leader in the Line 3 opposition, Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Nation and executive director of Indigenous environmental justice group Honor the Earth, has called the Line 3 fight “ground zero” in the battle over climate change.
Besides climate impacts, some of the main points of opposition to the massive Enbridge project — the largest in the company’s history — include violations of Indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights, ecological destruction including to wetlands and wild rice beds, concerns over oil spills, and extending a lifeline to the dying tar sands industry.
Some of the world’s largest banks and insurers are turning away from Canadian tar sands, for example, and major tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL have faced considerable opposition and delays. In November 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced she is ordering Enbridge to shut down another of its oil pipelines, Line 5, citing repeated violations of Enbridge’s easement (or permit) that threaten the Great Lakes.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has faced criticism for failing to take similar action opposing Line 3 and for allowing the controversial project to advance under approvals from his administration. Governor Walz’s office did not immediately return DeSmog’s call requesting comment.
Enbridge opponents point to the company’s track record of spills and accidents as a major concern. The company is responsible for the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill that leaked nearly one million gallons from a tar sands pipeline, as well as a 1991 pipeline rupture in Grand Rapids, Minnesota that released 1.7 million gallons of oil. Enbridge has had many safety violations over the years, and just a few months ago in Massachusetts, there were two accidents leading to emergency shutdowns of a newly constructed, Enbridge-owned gas compressor station in the town of Weymouth. Even on the new Line 3 project in Minnesota, one worker has already died during a construction accident in December.
In response to a request for comment on safety concerns, Enbridge pointed to the “thorough” review and permitting process for Line 3, as well as its COVID-19 safety protocols for workers. According to Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner, “Safety is Enbridge’s top priority and is at the core of the replacement of Line 3,” which she described as “an essential maintenance and safety project and a $2.6-billion private investment in Minnesota.”
It is in this context that Minnesota regulators have issued approvals for the embattled Line 3 project. The state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) granted Enbridge a Certificate of Need and routing permit in 2018; in February last year the state agency reaffirmed its approval and has since rejected requests by project opponents that construction be halted while courts resolve outstanding legal challenges. And in November 2020, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved a water quality certification, which was quickly followed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granting a federal Clean Water Act permit that same month.
New legal challenges
These state and federal approvals have allowed Enbridge to undertake construction, which began in December. But pipeline opponents and Ojibwe tribes have launched new legal challenges seeking to overturn the permits and halt Line 3 construction.
At the state level, Line 3 opponents are challenging both the PUC’s approval and refusal to pause the project, as well as the Pollution Control Agency’s certification. Two recent petitions before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, brought by the Red Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe, Honor the Earth, and Friends of the Headwaters, aim to halt construction while other legal challenges resolve. These lawsuits could stretch on for another six or nine months, by which time the pipeline construction is expected to be complete.
Andy Pearson, Midwest Tar Sands Coordinator at Minnesota 350 — one of the groups fighting Line 3 — told DeSmog that Enbridge has accelerated its construction schedule in a race against the court challenges, noting that Enbridge knows it is unusual for a court to order the disassembly of a pipeline that is already in the ground.
“It’s a clear play by Enbridge to do an end-run around the process playing out here,” Pearson said. “And the Governor is enabling them by not insisting they halt construction while these legal challenges are pending.”
Groups and tribes fighting Enbridge permits in court include the Red Lake Band, White Earth Band, Mille Lacs Band, Honor the Earth, Friends of the Headwaters, the Sierra Club, the Youth Climate Intervenors, and the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Pearson said it is unusual that a state agency like the Department of Commerce has to go to court against the state, but commented that that is where the situation is at.
Another new lawsuit was filed on Christmas Eve, December 24, against the Army Corps of Engineers challenging the federal agency’s approval of Clean Water Act permits. Environmental law firm Earthjustice filed that lawsuit on behalf of the Red Lake and White Earth tribal nations, Honor the Earth, and Sierra Club. The lawsuit brings claims under multiple environmental laws and alleges the Army Corps failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement and to evaluate the pipeline project’s cumulative impacts.
A new federal administration under President-elect Joe Biden could aid Line 3 opponents by finding Enbridge’s federal permits to be inadequate given lack of consideration to issues like tribal concerns and climate impacts. “We need Biden to be responsible here and to revoke or suspend the [Clean Water Act] permits,” Pearson said, adding: “this pipeline is functionally the same as Keystone XL,” which Biden has opposed.
“Destruction is brutal”
Meanwhile, the fight against Line 3 in Minnesota is continuing on the ground as Enbridge plows ahead with construction.
A coalition of Indigenous and environmental groups — including Honor the Earth, RISE Coalition, Giniw Collective, Gitchigumi Scouts, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Red Lake Treaty Camp — is amplifying the grassroots resistance.
In addition to the demonstration on January 2 that resulted in 14 arrests, multiple demonstrations have occurred in recent weeks, including one in mid-December when 22 water protectors were arrested. Another demonstration was held on January 5 in Superior, Wisconsin (the proposed end point of Line 3), and one is scheduled for Saturday, January 9, again at Great River Road just north of Palisade, Minnesota.
According to a firsthand account of the Line 3 resistance camp from Winona LaDuke on January 7: “Lots of people [are] stopping by and dropping off wood, food, warm clothes, Christmas cookies and cash.” She described the people engaged on the ground as “Volunteers of all walks of life — ex-DNR [Department of Natural Resources] officers, Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, delegations of state representatives, and then lots of police.”
“There’s a huge frustration with the state and some righteous anger, as people watch the 4,200 out-of-state workers come into our territory,” LaDuke explained in a statement emailed to DeSmog. “The destruction is brutal … Heavier and heavier equipment comes and the devastation of the project becomes clear — from the right-of-way given to Enbridge to the 630 million gallons of water Enbridge is allowed to discharge from wetlands and through pipes. People are very determined and so far 44 have been arrested.”
LaDuke notes that in a new article published Thursday, January 7 in The Nation, she describes the construction process as akin to rape.
“Let us shove this pipeline through. We will brutalize your village, we will drive our equipment over your medicines and then we will bring in the drill and drill under your rivers. The company is gunning for the 22 river crossings, with seven crews,” she told DeSmog. “It’s brutal.”