October 19, 2021

#StopLine3 - Water protectors fight to defend Indigenous lands and livelihoods

Words by Jessica Kleczka

Earlier in October, oil started flowing from Line 3, a controversial crude oil pipeline running from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. The line carries oil from Alberta’s tar sands - a heavier crude that consumes more energy and generates 17% more CO2 in the refining process than lighter oil. It is thought to be the world’s dirtiest fuel as it does not float, causes health risks when inhaled, and is particularly hard to clean up when it spills. Line 3 is Enbridge’s largest ever project and part of North America’s longest pipeline. It will carry enough oil to almost entirely replace the supply lost by the Biden administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. The processing and combustion of oil from the pipeline will release greenhouse gases equivalent to 50 coal-fired power plants. Over a thirty-year lifetime, Line 3’s climate damages are estimated at up to $287 billion, according to a Minnesota state study.

It was framed as a “replacement project” for an existing, deteriorating pipeline which was built in the 1960s, first ordered by the Obama administration. But in fact, it is an expansion as the majority of the new pipeline takes a different course than the original. The project was carried out by Enbridge - Canada’s largest oil company - and will double its capacity to 760,000 barrels per day. The combined cost of the project in Canada and the US stands at $10 billion - a sum which could solve a third of the global food crisis, or give 1.5 million Americans health insurance. The new addition crosses 200 bodies of water in drought-stricken Minnesota - including lakes, streams, wetlands, and headwaters of the Mississippi river - threatening Indigenous communities who grow wild rice in the area. Since its proposal, the pipeline has faced a six-year legal battle, including challenges from Indigenous communities, environmental groups, and the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Line 3 - an environmental disaster

According to the Enbridge website, “replacing an aging pipeline with new, modern construction is the safest and best option for protecting the environment”. The new pipeline corridor runs through Mississippi headwaters and Minnesota’s lake country, jeopardising the state’s tourism economy. It has faced consistent opposition from farmers as it passes through farmland, close to several organic farms. The route also crosses remote wetlands which would be inaccessible to emergency cleanup equipment in the event of a spill - which means that Enbridge will need to build new roads, too. 

Enbridge countered this by actively building relationships with the local community, asking for their concerns and speaking with people about the need for oil in the modern lifestyle - despite a projected fall in fossil fuel demand in Minnesota. The company was the biggest spender on lobbying in Minnesota for three consecutive years, spending $20 million on local sponsorships, direct payments to cities and towns along the pipeline route, and frequent ads in local papers listing reasons why Line 3 will benefit the local community. Those on the fence were given the false choice that if Line 3 was not built, crude oil would be moved across the state on trucks and trains, which Enbridge claimed was more carbon-emitting and less safe.

Protesters marching past Minnesota capitol in May. Image credit: Fibonacci Blue
Climate activists and Indigenous community members in Solvay, Minnesota in June, protesting Line 3 construction. Image credit: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Grist

Enbridge has a history of oil spills

Enbridge’s safety record has been labelled “obscene”, even compared to other major construction companies. Twenty-eight so-called frac-outs have happened over the summer at twelve river crossings - releasing thousands of gallons of drilling fluids (a mix of mud and chemicals used as lubrication for drilling under rivers) - which can disrupt ecosystems, suffocate mussels and fish and pollute drinking water. A Greenpeace report exposed that between 2002-2018, Enbridge reported 307 in its pipeline network, an average of one oil spill every twenty days. In 2010, the company was guilty of causing one of the largest oil spills in US history when it released more than a million gallons int Kalamazoo river, which flows into Lake Michigan. Enbridge failed to notice the spill for 17 hours, despite the river running black.

In January, Enbridge dug too deeply into the ground and pierced an aquifer, leading to a 24-million-gallon groundwater leak which endangered a local wetland. The incident was not discovered until June, and Enbridge failed to report the breach as it should have done. It was fine over $3 million by the Department for Natural Resources for failing to follow environmental laws. In 2010, another Enbridge pipeline spill resulted in 150 families permanently leaving their homes in Michigan.

“You can live without oil. But you cannot live without water.” - Dawn Kier, Indigenous activist
Activists are walked through an Enbridge Line 3 pump station after being arrested near Park Rapids, Minnesota in August. Image credit: Evan Frost/MPR News via Common Dreams

An activist uses an umbrella for shade as they sit locked to an excavator at an Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids, Minnesota in August. Image credit: Evan Frost/MPR News via Common Dreams

Line 3 violates Indigenous treaty rights

The pipeline is running though Anishinaabe territory, and Indigenous Peoples native to Minnesta will be disproportionately impacted. The Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe) never left the region because they signed treaties with the US government in the mid-1900s that made allowances for land sharing. White settlers could enter the land as long as they respected native people’s rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice in the wetlands, as they had for centuries. Since then, the region has been dependent on extractive economies like iron mining and logging. Despite the treaties, Minnesota has a long history of ignoring Indigenous rights. Because the risk of oil spills from Line 3 is so high, Enbridge is knowingly in violation of said treaties. It is thought that the line could contaminate hundreds of acres of land, endangering Indigenous livelihoods and public health.

Wild rice, which grows in the shallow wetlands and lakes of central and northern Minnesota,  is one of the few grains native to North America. It is called Manoomin (”the good berry”) in Anishinaabe language and is already facing multiple threats, including climate change, mining, water pollution and genetic modification. Wild rice is an indicator species, which means that it tends to reflect overall ecosystem health. Because it requires clean water to grow, it is particularly vulnerable to oil spills.

“Wild rice is our life. Where there’s Anishinaabe, there’s rice. When there’s rice, there’s Anishinaabe. It’s our most sacred food.” - Winona LaDuke
Line 3’s new and existing route crosses land covered by treaties from 1854, 1855, and 1863. The borders of those treaties are marked by white lines on the map. Source: Grist

Why is president Biden letting this happen?

How Enbridge got their permit for the pipeline is questionable. It was originally approved by the Trump administration without conducting any prior environmental assessment. At the permit court hearing, scientists argued that they were not asked for input until the end of the approval process. They argued that their warnings about the potential environmental impacts of spills and the line’s contribution to climate change were ignored. After the permit was approved, the majority of the pollution control agency’s environmental justice advisory board - who opposed the project - resigned, stating that they could not “continue to legitimise and provide cover for the war on black and brown people.”

Winona LaDuke, executive director of Indgenous environmental group Honor the Earth and the leading face of the resistance, publicly called on Biden to stand by his promise to be a “climate president”. Tribal attorney Tara Houska told Biden administration advisers: “You can’t cancel Keystone and then build an almost identical tar sands pipeline.” In an interview with the Guardian, she called Line 3 “a perpetuation of cultural genocide”.

Police in riot gear arrest environmental activists at the Line 3 pumping station near Itasca State Park, Minnesota, in June. Image credit: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Jacobin Mag

The Water Protector Resistance

To this day, thousands of activists have taken action in the form of civil disobedience to stop the pipeline. More than 900 people have been arrested or “ticketed” (cautioned) at protests along the route since construction began in December 2020. In June, 250 people were arrested on a single day after protestors blocked sites and locked themselves to equipment. Protest camps have formed, with several dozen permanent residents - many of them are veterans of the Standing Rock protest camp set up inNorth Dakota in 2016 to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline - where the term “water protector” was first adopted by the movement. One of the camps was set up by the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous women and two-spirit frontline resistance group founded by Tara Houska, who have received more than their fair share of police violence.

Indigenous resistance is vital to fighting climate change - a report by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International found that Indigenous-led resistance to fossil fuel infrastructures has “stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least 25% of annual US and Canadian emissions” over the past decade. Republican legislators in Minnesota are responding with attempts to pass laws that would criminalise pipeline protest, and local police and private security contractors have been closely monitoring Indigenous activists, both online and offline.

The fight against Line 3 continues...

Although a challenge to the permit granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers is still pending in court, this did not block construction. Opponents are now asking the Supreme Court to review clean water certifications granted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in order to minimise damage to communities.

There is also a “Rights to Nature” lawsuit pending in the White Earth tribal court, which names Manoomin (the Ojibwe word for wild rice) as one of the plaintiffs. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has asked a federal appeals court to block the case - but a federal judge has blocked this attempt. The lawsuit is the first rights-of-nature case to be filed in tribal court.

On October 12, more than 100 Indigenous leaders and supporters who have been resisting the pipeline expansion delivered one million petitions to the White House, urging the Biden Administration to stop the project and order a full environmental review.

The Indigenous Environmental Network writes: 

“The Line 3 fight is far from over, it has just shifted gears. We will continue to stand on the frontline until every last tar sands pipeline is shut down and Indigenous communities are no longer targeted but our right to consent or denial is respected.”
Environmental activists protest in front of the construction site for the Line 3 oil pipeline. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters demonstrate against the pipeline in northwestern Minnesota in December 2020. Image credit: Sarah LittleRedFeather, Honor the Earth

Cover image source: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Vox