Winona LaDuke was blocking the main intersection in Bemidji, Minnesota, in August when she received a citation for disorderly conduct. As the cops led her to a squad car, the director of Honor the Earth, a nonprofit group focused on indigenous environmental issues, turned to the scores of other protesters fighting Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline and raised her arms to cheer them on.
LaDuke, who ran for vice president in 1996 and 2000 on the Green Party ticket, has been an activist for four decades, taking on energy infrastructure projects that could harm indigenous people and sacred lands (including the Dakota Access Pipeline). But this was just the second time she had a run-in with the police (the first was in the 1990s, at a protest in support of old-growth trees). For the past five years, LaDuke has been working to stop Line 3, a tar sands oil pipeline that would traverse more than 1,000 miles through northern Minnesota from Hardisty, Alberta, to a distribution center in Superior, Wisconsin. And although she’s been a part of many important battles over her activism career, this one, she says, is the most important yet because of the pipeline’s effect on indigenous peoples and the environment—both locally and globally.
She’s not alone in feeling this way. Several other groups and tribes, such as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Red Lake Band of Chippewa, are fighting Line 3, which, if built, will transport 760,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Alberta’s tar sands to the Wisconsin facility.
Technically speaking, Line 3 already exists. Enbridge, the Canadian company that brought us the 2010 Kalamazoo spill, wants to upgrade its 50-year-old pipeline to double its carrying capacity. But the new Line 3 is quite a bit different from the original. First, it follows a different path through much of Minnesota. Second, the new pipe would run beneath a reservation, protected treaty lands, and 42 wild rice lakes. In the event of a spill, the thick crude would kill the native grasses and cause irreversible damage. Third, Enbridge has no plans to remove its old, degraded pipe, which could contaminate the ground as it continues to deteriorate, critics argue.
LaDuke, who is a member of the White Earth Ojibwe, fears that Enbridge’s impact on the land could be permanent. “Wild rice is our most sacred food and the mainstay for Ojibwe people,” she says. “We have very little left, but what we have is wild rice.”
Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the project in June—an unusual move considering it went against the recommendation of a judge, who had pored over thousands of pages of documentation before suggesting that the request be denied. The commission also disregarded information in an environmental impact statement (EIS), written by Minnesota’s Department of Commerce, that detailed how bringing tar sands crude to market could exacerbate climate change.
When the commission had the chance to reverse its decision in November (something it has never done), protesters, including LaDuke, gathered in front of the office of governor-elect Tim Walz.
If Line 3 development continues apace, Enbridge could complete the project by next year. But if the fate of other major pipelines hoping to transport tar sands oil are any indication, the timeline could drag on for years—to the great relief of indigenous communities and anyone else concerned with the tar sands industry’s potential impact on the planet’s climate.
That is the familiar story of the Keystone XL and Trans Mountain projects, two other proposed pipelines that would have moved oil from landlocked Alberta to distribution centers in the Gulf of Mexico and British Columbia, respectively. In both cases, the pipelines got caught up in the courts and are currently stalled.
Line 3 hasn’t received as much attention as the others in part because it’s a replacement pipeline, so it doesn’t face the major hurdle of U.S. State Department approval, something required of new pipelines crossing an international boundary.
Even so, Line 3 is getting caught up in the courts, since the project fails to meet certain criteria required by the state of Minnesota. For one, Enbridge didn’t conduct a study demonstrating a demand for the oil the pipeline would carry. It merely showed that it could transport the oil. In fact, demand for oil is decreasing in the United States, due in part to cheap natural gas and growing renewable energy production.
“What’s really effective is standing up for the rights of those who will be impacted,” says Adam Scott, a senior adviser for Oil Change International, an organization focused on bringing attention to the social costs of fossil fuels. “And there’s certainly been a lot of success with indigenous communities that have specific rights.”
Activists have defeated Minnesota’s PUC before. The 616-mile Sandpiper pipeline proposed by Enbridge in 2014 would have carried oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil formation to the same terminus in Superior, Wisconsin, as the one proposed for Line 3. Though Sandpiper got full approval from Minnesota’s PUC, a small group of activists from Friends of the Headwaters fought it in court, saying Enbridge needed to complete an environmental review. The group won the case, setting Enbridge back two years, and the company ultimately killed the project.
Delaying or stopping these pipelines is helping to deter oil sands development altogether. The problems facing pipelines have contributed to oil prices in Alberta slumping and major oil companies leaving the tar sands market. Over the past year, Statoil has canceled development plans there and Marathon Oil and Royal Dutch Shell have cut back operations—all of which helps keep the fossil fuels in the ground.
If Line 3 makes it through, it could operate for 50 years or more, shuttling tens of millions of barrels of oil to market, a scenario very much at odds with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest recommendation to slow our fossil fuel consumption within a 12-year time frame in order to avoid the worst consequences of a warming planet.
A more immediate possibility is that the new pipeline could rupture. Enbridge argues that the old pipeline is unsafe, but a recent Greenpeace report shows that the company has had 46 spills on equipment that was no more than 10 years old. “We’ve seen statistically there will be [a rupture] over the life of a project. It’s sort of a question of when and where it will happen, not if,” says Scott. On the new Line 3, the volume of oil flowing through the pipeline will be very high, and because the crude itself is mixed with toxic chemicals, a spill would be especially damaging.
When Enbridge’s 6B pipeline spilled close to a million gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in July 2010, the oil sank. The only way to remove the heavy, sticky crude was to dredge the river bottom, but many years and more than $1 billion later, the Kalamazoo is still not oil free.
That’s not a risk LaDuke is willing to take. She’ll do everything she can to keep the pipeline from moving forward, whether it’s by organizing a protest or filing a lawsuit.
“Every other pipeline is in hell because of a legal decision,” she says. “We intend to make this the most expensive pipeline that Enbridge never built.”
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