Indigenous water protectors in Minnesota are demanding that President Biden — who revoked permits for the Keystone XL during his first day in office — scrap another tar sands pipeline project: the expansion of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3. Work on the controversial pipeline moved forward at the end of last year despite an undecided, tribally-led lawsuit requesting a court injunction to halt construction.
Indigenous rights and environmental activists have been staging a series of nonviolent direct actions against the project since construction began in Minnesota in late November. Multiple water protectors were arrested earlier this month after walking onto worksites and holding peaceful demonstrations.
“This is about who gets to be the last tar sands pipeline,” Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth told the Journal. “That’s it. This is a battle of who gets to decide what the future looks like in Minnesota, because behind this pipeline is a whole list of mining projects that want to come to the north.”
Tribal nations, environmental organizations, and allied groups have been fighting to stop the pipeline since the Canadian energy company announced its plans to “replace” the existing Line 3 in 2014. The proposed project would almost double the size of the existing pipeline and would drill a new corridor through important wetlands and Indigenous territories in northern Minnesota, threatening the environment and violating treaty rights of Anishinaabe peoples.
“This is not just another pipeline,” writes Louise Erdrich of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in a New York Times op-ed. “It is a tar sands climate bomb; if completed, it will facilitate the production of crude oil for decades to come.”
Line 3 is a 1,097-mile pipeline, built in the 1960s to transport diluted tar sands from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin via northern Minnesota. In 2014, Enbridge Energy applied for permits for a $3 billion project to replace the old pipeline with a new Line 3. Though officially labeled a “replacement” of the existing Line 3, the project will, in fact, build an entirely new pipeline through a new corridor — one that cuts through treaty territories and the heart of culturally and environmentally significant watersheds home to Anishinaabe wild rice beds.
Enbridge Energy already has a dire track record of pipeline leaks and spills, both small and large. Between 2002 and 2018, the Canadian energy company reported 307 hazardous liquids incidents (an average of one every 20 days), including the disastrous Kalamazoo River oil spill in 2010 and Line 3’s 1991 spill near Grand Rapids, Minnesota — two of the largest inland oil spills in US history.
Those fighting to stop Line 3 argue that the proposed project seeks to expand a dying tar sands industry at any cost. In 2017, Minnesota’s own Department of Commerce determined that, due to the serious risks and limited benefits of the pipeline, Minnesota would actually be “better off” if Enbridge ceased operations of the existing Line 3, without building a new replacement pipeline.
“There is no need for this pipeline as the world reduces oil consumption in the face of increasing climate change,” LaDuke said in a statement. “The certificate of need was issued based on bad math and puts Minnesotans into a very dangerous situation in terms of liability. Now the ‘need’ is for a transition away from fossil fuels.”
Those fighting to stop Line 3 have stalled the destructive project — which was supposed to be completed in 2017 — through many years of hard work, grassroots efforts, and legal actions.
But unlike Keystone XL, Line 3 has already crossed most regulatory hurdles. Enbridge began construction on the pipeline in northern Minnesota in December 2020, where the company has been met with renewed resistance from water protectors fighting to protect Anishinaabe homelands and treaty rights.
Eight water protectors were arrested on January 9, when hundreds of Anishinaabe jingle dress dancers and water protectors gathered at the worksite on the Mississippi River. Two additional individuals were arrested a few days later, when water protectors locked themselves together inside a segment of pipe to stall construction. Water protectors have continued to gather in opposition to the pipeline throughout the month, in Minnesota and beyond.
“We witnessed pipes being put into the ground which have been sitting out for years. It’s wrong. Those pipes will leak. Enbridge is a climate criminal. Water Protectors are the home team. Don’t arrest us,” Winona LaDuke said.
Line 3 would cross 227 bodies of water and more than 800 protected wetlands, and the immediate environmental threat that the massive pipeline poses to the habitats and biodiversity of the Great Lakes region — one of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems — is vast.
By replacing 364 miles of existing 34-inch pipe with new 36-inch pipe, the project would double Line 3’s capacity to approximately 760,000 barrels per day, and would allow the pipeline to transport heavier grades of crude oil. Significant portions of the pipeline would travel a new route, including through ceded lands adjacent to tribal reservations in Minnesota upon which members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe hold hunting, fishing, and gathering rights.
“In really, really simple terms, there is nowhere worse — on Earth — to have an oil sands pipeline system than the Great Lakes region,” said Dr. Rachel Havrelock, director of the University of Illinois Freshwater Lab.
On December 24, Earthjustice filed a complaint on behalf of the White Earth and Red Lake nations, Honor the Earth, and the Sierra Club, in a federal district court in Washington D.C., challenging permits issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers authorizing the pipeline “replacement” project in Minnesota. Citing the lack of both a formal federal environmental impact statement and a cultural impact assessment, the complaint requests an emergency injunction to halt construction of the pipeline while tribally-led lawsuits are heard in court.
Despite the pending injunction, Enbridge worksites are operating 24 hours a day to move the project forward. Health professionals and tribal governments are concerned that the influx of thousands of workers will increase the spread of Covid-19 and add additional strain to healthcare systems in regions that have already been hit hard by the virus, and have called on state officials to grant an emergency stay on the project while cases surge.
According to a statement from organizers at the demonstration on January 9, “One arresting officer in a Cass County uniform without a badge refused to put on a face mask and grinned at the crowd as he held a zip-tied water protector. Enbridge’s worksites and man camps have quickly become hotspots for Covid-19 in Aitkin County.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted anew how low-income and communities of color are often disproportionately affected by health impacts caused by environmental destruction and climate change. Those protesting the pipeline note how Line 3 at once violates Indigenous treaty rights, threatens human and environmental health, and, now, increases the risk of Covid-19 spread in local communities.
“This pipeline project is violence,” said Liam DeMain, a 22-year-old water protector who began a tree sit in early December in the forest set to be logged for Enbridge to drill Line 3 under the Mississippi River. “It is violence on the water, and on the people.”
“I am here, putting my body on the line” DeMain said, “because I have been left with no other choices.”
As the first week of Biden’s presidency comes to a close, the administration has already moved to advance a more climate-focused agenda by rejoining the U.S. into the Paris climate accord, halting new oil and gas leases on federal land, and cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline. And this week, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe won an important victory when a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s decision to revoke a key permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
But activist groups are pushing the new administration to stand up for climate justice by cancelling Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline, in addition to Keystone XL. As Tara Houska, founder of Giniw Collective, said in a statement, “Suspending one big oil expansion project through Native territory and approving another is the opposite of climate leadership and respect for Indigenous sovereignty.”
Water protectors in Minnesota are calling on President Biden to pledge to “build back fossil free,” by fully suspending the expansion of big oil throughout Native lands and honoring Indigenous treaties.
“We will be fighting over rocks and pipes for the rest of my life,” Winona LaDuke said, “unless we make a just transition.”
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