The Thunderbirds Versus The Black Snake

On Anishinaabe Akiing, an epic battle against oil pipelines is underway.

Here in the northland of the Great Lakes – or, as we say, Anishinaabe Akiing, the land to which the people belong – a battle is underway. It’s a battle as epic as the myth of the thunderbirds, the ones who prevented the great horned snakes from overrunning Earth and devouring humanity. Four new or expanded oil pipelines have been proposed that would cross our traditional lands. This is “extreme oil” – oil from the tar sands mines of Alberta, home of the Cree, and oil from the fracking fields of North Dakota, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. It’s oil that should not be extracted, being sent to refineries where it should not be processed. And neither should it cross our lands, because it puts the Greatest of Lakes – Gichi Gummi, Lake Superior – at risk. So we have found ourselves in a pitched battle that pits clean water and wild rice against oil.

photo of oily waterphoto Jason W LaceyIn 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and spilled a million gallons of diluted bitumen from
the Alberta tar sands into the Kalamazoo River.

This is what the oil companies have already done here. The Great Lakes region is the most important hub for tar sands projects outside of Alberta. There are at least six major pipelines around the Great Lakes. That figure doesn’t include all of the oil moved through the area by water and rail. During the past decade, at least 19 refineries in the states bordering the Great Lakes have undergone upgrades to welcome an influx of tar sands crude. Today some 70 percent of tar sands oil extracted in Alberta goes to the US Midwest – or approximately 2 million barrels per day.

And this is what the oil companies are now planning to do here. Pipeline company Enbridge is on the verge of almost doubling the amount of oil that currently passes through its Alberta Clipper line, from 450,000 barrels of oil a day to 880,000 barrels a day. Enbridge, a Canadian company, is also proposing to build a 610-mile-long pipeline – called Sandpiper – that will move an estimated 355,000 barrels a day from the fracking fields of North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the company is making plans to replace and expand another pipeline, Line 3, which carries crude from Canada to Wisconsin refineries. At the same time, the Minnesota Pipeline Company is planning to double the capacity of its Line 4 pipeline to 350,000 barrels per day; the pipeline is operated by a Koch Brothers subsidiary.

Why all of this frenzy of new oil-infrastructure building? Because the tar sands oil from Alberta and the fracked oil from Nebraska are land-locked, and the oil barons need to be able to get their oil to the international markets. So they have focused on the Port of Superior on Lake Superior, the most inland port in the United States. But standing between the oil fields and that coveted port are seven Anishinaabeg reservations. The westernmost is the White Earth Reservation, my own territory, which is home to Rice Lake, the largest (and only organic certified) wild rice bed in the country. The proposed Enbridge Sandpiper line, the Line 4 expansion, and a new and “improved” Line 3 would cross this watershed, then move south and east, through the most bountiful wild rice lakes in the region – which also happen to be the 1855 treaty territory of the Anishinaabeg.

Here is what’s at stake: the Anishinaabeg way of life. Our way of life is simple and elegant. We live together with our relatives – four-legged as well as two-legged – in a respectful balance that ensures minobimaatisiiwin – our name for “the good life.” A central part of that good life is the season of Manominike Giizis, the time of making wild rice. This is what we do as Anishinaabeg people. We are the people of the wild rice, our most sacred food, and the indicator species of an ecosystem of thousands of lakes; maple trees that provide sugar; deer; fish; muskeg full of medicines; and a fifth of the world’s freshwater. The pipelines put all of that in jeopardy.

These aren’t abstract concerns. Enbridge is notorious for a horrible environmental record. The Polaris Institute, a Canadian research organization, reports that 804 spills occurred on Enbridge pipelines between 1999 and 2010, releasing a total of 161,000 barrels of oil into the environment. The worst occurred five years ago, when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and sent more than a million gallons of diluted bitumen (or “dil-bit,” which comes from the tar sands mines) flowing into the Kalamazoo River. It was one of the most costly oil spills in US history. A 2012 study sponsored by the US Department of Transportation analyzed Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data and showed that the US experiences several hundred pipeline incidents each year, some of which are catastrophic. The study concluded that the “average” pipeline, in any given 10-year period, has a 57 percent chance of experiencing a major leak, with damages worth more than $1 million. Those are worse odds than flipping a coin.

Here’s how Michael Dahl, a White Earth tribal member, explained the threat at a hearing on one of the proposed pipelines: “We have treaties with creation. We have treaties with the fish, we have a treaty with the rice, [with] that lake.… When we negotiated treaties with the United States we had to go back and renegotiate our treaties with creation. Creation doesn’t give a second chance; we can’t renegotiate again. Protect the land, live with the land, not off of it.”

When we first heard about some of these proposed pipelines back in 2011, the Native community tried working through the white man’s process, the wasicu process, the way the fat-takers do business. Tribal governments requested government-to-government consultation about the pipelines. We went to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commissions, but we were told that the PUC was not required to consult with tribal governments. This despite the fact that the Sandpiper and Clipper pipeline crosses the 1867 treaty-guaranteed boundaries of the White Earth reservation, not to mention the 1855 treaty holdings of the Anishinaabeg. At every turn, tribes were turned away from the process.

The white man’s process is broken. So now we have launched our own process.

So now we have launched our own process as First Nations, as a people who, as Michael Dahl said, also have covenants with the land, water, and our four-legged and winged cousins. In June, the tribal governments at Mille Lacs and White Earth held their own regulatory hearings on the Enbridge proposals. We did so for two reasons. First, and most important, because we are governments, and we have the right to consider what happens on our lands. And second, because the wasicu process, in this case the process of the state of Minnesota, is dysfunctional. When the hearings opened on June 4, Joe Plummer, general counsel for the White Earth reservation, explained how native communities had been left out of the state process: “We are holding our own evidentiary hearing to allow for the tribal members who will be most impacted by the proposed Enbridge pipeline corridor to be able to testify. State hearings that take place 50 miles away from a community, in the dead of winter, and on short notice, do not constitute consultation.”

The tribal governments, in fact, had asked state officials to hold hearings on the reservations, but the requests were denied. When tribal governments asked for exact information on the pipeline routes, they were also denied, and were told that the information was classified under Critical Energy Infrastructure Information regulations. That is, because of “national security,” we wouldn’t be told exactly where the pipelines are supposed to go. Tribal members who did make it to the hearings were told they had to limit the scope of what they could speak about; many people were not allowed to testify at all. And, of course, the environmental impact assessment done by Enbridge did not once mention wild rice. “To date, government-to-government consultation required between state agencies and Indian Tribes in accordance with Governor Dayton’s Executive Order l3-l0 has not occurred on this matter,” said Mille Lacs Band Chairwoman Melanie Benjamin, “nor was there any mechanism for consultation in the [administrative law] hearing process.”

On the western front, regulatory authority is even worse. James Botsford, a North Dakota landowner, is being sued by Enbridge for the “right” to build a pipeline across his land. Botsford has asked the company to route its proposed Sandpiper pipeline around his family farm; the company is determined to go straight through it. A North Dakota jury will soon hear the case between Enbridge and Botsford. “This is land that has been in my family for decades; it is prime Red River valley agriculture land,” Botsford told me. “It was handed down to me by my mother and father when they passed away, and I’m intending to hand it down to my children when I pass away.… Of course, if 225,000 barrels of oil bursts through this thing, that certainly is the end of this family legacy.”

Frank Bibeau, an attorney for Honor the Earth, says the issue goes beyond what could happen to the Botsford land. “The fact is that if a Canadian corporation can successfully secure eminent domain rights over the land of American farmers, we have a constitutional problem,” Bibeau says.

There’s also trouble to the east of Anishinaabe Akiing. Much of the oil from the Sandpiper pipeline will end up at a Marathon Oil refinery in the Boynton neighborhood of Detroit. In 2012 Marathon completed a $2.2 billion upgrade so that the facility would be able to process tar sands oil. Neighbors say the area is already toxic, and that processing the heavier oil will make things worse. “We have a tar sands refinery in our community, and it is just horrific. We are a sick community,” Emma Lockridge, a Boynton resident, testified at the pipeline hearing on the White Earth reservation. “I have had kidney failure. Neighbor died of dialysis. Neighbor next door with dialysis. Neighbor across the street has kidney failure. The chemicals in our pipelines and are in our water will be the same chemicals that come through your land and [the pipe] can break and contaminate.”

Lockridge said that in 2011, when Marathon had almost completed its upgrade, the oil company bought out more than 275 homes in Oakwood Heights, another fence-line neighborhood, to create a buffer zone. But, she says, there was a clear racial disparity in the buy-outs. “The people who they bought out were primarily white. The black people are left to die.”

Honor the Earth

At least 14 states – including California, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington – limit how close schools can be to sources of pollution, highways, contaminated sites, or pipelines. Some states take into account the cumulative impact of pollution (as opposed to just looking at the pollution from a single source) when making decisions on permits for industrial projects. Michigan does not. As a consequence, people are put at risk. “There are no minimum requirements in Michigan for how far away from homes and schools industry must be,” says Paul Mohai, a University of Michigan professor who has researched the cumulative impacts of children’s pollution exposure. “Kids are most at risk, because pound for pound, they breathe in more air. Yet they don’t have a say in where they live or go to school.”

People like Botsford and Lockridge remind us that we are not the only ones struggling against the black snake of the oil pipelines. Large fossil-fuel development projects are not faring well across the continent. The Keystone XL pipeline has been indefinitely stalled by a powerful alliance of Lakota people and white ranchers in Nebraska and South Dakota. A major shift in political power in Alberta has drastically reduced the oil industry’s influence there, and the new premier does not support new pipeline proposals. Our relatives to the west have stopped the Northern Gateway pipeline, another contentious Enbridge pipeline that was supposed to take tar sands from the mines of Alberta to the coast of British Columbia.

Marjorie Dumont, Chief of the Tsayu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation explains why her people opposed the Northern Gateway project: “The pipeline threatens my livelihood even before it bursts. A lot of the ecosystems are going to be destroyed. I worry about that. I worry about the ancestors who have been buried in our territory. That’s our graveyard and that’s our dinner table. Our blood stays pure only so long as our water stays pure. I would be devastated if we were removed from our land. It is who we are.…The representatives of Enbridge have [kept coming] here for eight years. I’ve sat with them in meetings. We’ve told them, ‘No.’ It’s not respectful to keep asking. What part of ‘no’ do they not understand?”

That uncompromising spirit is the same as the Anishinaabeg’s. At the pipeline hearings, tribal member Dawn Goodwin said: “The stories that are told about where we come from – they are gifts of life, for us to have a good life. It is life. We were surrounded by water at one time – until we were born into the world – just like we are born into water today. Everything the rice grows in – it is a circle of life. That is what we need to do – to follow that circle of life. Enbridge, will you sit in our communities, where our water is poisoned? Will you drink the water with us? You will not live with us when the poison sets in.

“We will not let it happen.”

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. 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.

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