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The Indigenous-led fight to stop the Line 3 oil pipeline expansion in Minnesota, explained

President Biden canceled Keystone XL. Now Indigenous groups want him to halt another pipeline project.

Sarah LittleRedfeather of Honor the Earth dances with an eagle feather in front of the construction site for the Line 3 oil pipeline near Palisade, Minnesota, on January 9, 2021.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

Tania Aubid began her hunger strike on Valentine’s Day.

“Valentine’s Day is about love and having that love for your partner — but for me to have the love, I need to start from the ground up, which is Mother Earth,” Aubid told me. Her hunger strike is in protest of the Line 3 oil pipeline project that is being built in Minnesota.

Aubid is Anishinaabe, a term that refers to a group of Native tribes found in parts of Canada and the US, and comes from what she describes as “a little village called East Lake, Minnesota.” When I spoke to her, her hunger strike was on day 33. She’s surviving on “pretty much anything that’s liquid water,” including “nourishment tea from the Seneca nation, which heard about my hunger strike and sent some tea so I can drink,” Aubid said.

Aubid is one of the many Indigenous and climate activists protesting to try to convince President Joe Biden to cancel the Line 3 pipeline project, the way he canceled the Keystone XL with an executive order back in January.

The fight over the roughly 340-mile Line 3 pipeline expansion project, which when completed will transport 1 million barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada, across much of northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin, has been heating up since December, when Enbridge, the Canadian multinational energy transportation company responsible for the project, began construction on the new portion of the pipeline.

Enbridge says the project will create thousands of jobs and pump billions of dollars into Minnesota’s economy. The company also said via email that it has done everything required under the law to receive approval for the pipeline and ensure it operates safely.

But Indigenous groups and climate activists say Line 3 poses a significant risk of oil spills that could destroy precious water resources, wetlands, and ancestral lands. Line 3 will have the equivalent climate impact of bringing 50 new coal plants online, according to one report.

At this point, the Line 3 project, which is actually a rerouting of an existing pipeline, would see the original pipeline abandoned and a more than 300-mile section laid through new Minnesota land, is about 50 percent complete. Enbridge will begin what it says is a planned pause on construction for two months beginning April 1.

In the meantime, there are both state and federal lawsuits challenging Enbridge’s permits, but activists are holding out hope that Biden will cancel the pipeline altogether.

Here’s what the Line 3 project would mean for the region, why Indigenous groups and climate activists are opposed to it, and what if anything can stop it from becoming operational later this year.

Line 3, briefly explained

Map of the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline Replacement Project
Minnesota Public Utilities Commission

First built in the 1960s, the current Line 3 crude oil pipeline stretches more than 1,000 miles from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, through Minnesota, and on to Superior, Wisconsin, where it ends.

In 2014, citing corroded pipes and the demand for more oil, Enbridge began the designing and permitting process to reroute Line 3 farther south across more than 330 miles of northern Minnesota. The expansion would add a new pipeline corridor and double the amount of oil transported through the pipeline to 1 million barrels per day. The old pipeline has been operating at half capacity.

Enbridge says it has done the necessary work and received the necessary permits for the Line 3 replacement and that modifications have been made to minimize the pipeline’s environmental impact.

In an email to Vox, Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said Line 3’s replacement is “the most studied pipeline project in Minnesota history [and] has been the subject of more than six years of science-based review by regulatory and permitting bodies.”

Kellner said the process included “more than 70 public hearings, a 13,500-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), four separate reviews by independent administrative law judges, and 320 route modifications in response to stakeholder input and reviews and approvals.”

Enbridge claims that, over two years, Line 3 will create 4,200 jobs in Minnesota, half of which will be for local union workers, and that it will provide a $2 billion jolt to the Minnesota economy during project design and construction. But according to the Star Tribune, so far only 33 percent of workers on Line 3 are from Minnesota.

Enbridge also argues that the Line 3 expansion is needed to safely deliver tar sands oil and prevent leaks, because otherwise that oil would travel by train.

“Line 3 is not like the Keystone XL pipeline. It already exists,” Enbridge’s Senior VP Mike Fernandez told CNN. But on this point, Fernandez is mistaken. The Keystone XL pipeline was also an extension of existing pipeline infrastructure, so Line 3 is in fact very much like Keystone XL.

And activists are arguing Biden should cancel Line 3, just as he canceled Keystone XL.

Concerns about oil spills, land impacts, and climate change are driving Indigenous-led opposition to Line 3

Opposition to Line 3’s new route stems from the risk of oil spills, disruption to the land, and its contribution to climate change.

Line 3 will deliver oil from Alberta’s tar sands — a thick, dense substance called bitumen — which is more expensive, more difficult, and even worse for the environment to extract than other forms of oil.

And if the oil spills, activists worry Enbridge won’t have the ability to clean it up. A 2016 report found that tar sands oil is much more difficult to clean up than non-tar sands oil.

Most of Alberta’s tar sands oil is trapped beneath the boreal forest, which means trees must be cleared for companies like Enbridge to get access to the oil. Once the forests are cleared, a lot of the tar sands oil requires in situ mining, in which hot steam is pumped underground to help liquefy the tar sands oil so it’s ready for extraction.

Once pulled from the ground, the trouble doesn’t end there: Throughout its lifetime, a gallon of gasoline made from tar sands oil emits 15 percent more carbon dioxide than one made from conventional oil, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“It’s the spills — which always happen with pipelines. It’s the disruption itself of just the pipeline going into 800 wetlands, 200 bodies of water. Then there’s the climate change piece, emissions of this 50 coal plants, absolute insanity,” attorney Tara Houska of Couchiching First Nation, founder of the advocacy organization Giniw Collective, told CNN in a March 18 interview about the Line 3 project.

Concerns about oil spills are understandable. In 1991, the original Line 3 pipeline leaked 1.7 million gallons of crude oil into the nearby Prairie River in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Luckily, it was the dead of winter and the river was covered by thick ice, which prevented the oil from entering and polluting the water used by millions of people downstream on the Mississippi River.

Activists say the 1991 spill is proof oil pipelines are too dangerous in Minnesota, but concerns about oil pipelines in the region don’t stop there.

In 2010, there was the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill in Michigan — the second-biggest inland oil spill in US history. Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline ruptured, spilling more than 1 million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek, which spread to the Kalamazoo River.

It took Enbridge 17 hours to notice the spill, raising concerns about whether the company could properly monitor its pipelines for leaks. Cleanup for the spill took years and ultimately cost Enbridge $1.2 billion.

Line 3 activists are concerned that the same or worse could happen along the more than 300 miles of proposed pipeline that would extend across bodies of water, wetlands, and wild rice beds in northern Minnesota.

Water is of particular concern to the Anishinaabe women who see themselves as responsible for protecting it.

“We consider water not a resource — not something to be bought or sold, but a living, thinking, sentient relative and the portal through which everything comes to life,” Simone Senogles, the Food Sovereignty Program coordinator at Indigenous Environmental Network, told me. For some, Senogles admits, “it can sound ‘New Age-y,’ but it’s not. It’s just a worldview that Anishinaabe have.”

“It’s a way that has allowed us to live in this place forever and not to have done harm the way colonizers have done,” Senogles said. “They’ve only been here 500 years and they’ve already screwed it up.”

The Line 3 extension would also cross through the Leech Lake and Fond Du Lac reservations — land where, according to the terms of an 1855 treaty, Ojibwe tribes have the right to gather, hunt, and fish. For this reason, Anishinaabe activists say the pipeline violates the terms of the treaty.

“What is spelled out in the treaty — the pipeline could pollute food sources, water sources, everything spelled out in the treaty what we as Anishinaabe people can do — hunt, fish, gather food, medicine. Line 3 goes against what we do spiritually as a people,” Aubid told me.

In her email, Enbridge’s Kellner said the company “has demonstrated ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty.” Citing negotiations with tribal leadership that led to routes that avoided reservations, Kellner said that “Both Leech Lake and Fond du Lac have spoken and written repeatedly in support of project permits.”

When asked about the tribes who agreed to Line 3’s expansion, Aubid says when faced with the decision, “the [tribal] leadership pretty much had a Sophie’s Choice type of deal: either this or that.”

Aubid also blamed some of the Native support for the pipeline on lateral violence, in which members of a marginalized group act in counterproductive ways that end up harming their community. “They try to speak for all Native communities which they do not have the right to do,” Aubid said of the members who approved Line 3.

But Aubid also stressed that when faced with the fact that there are already pipelines running through Minnesota reservations, it’s a case of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”

Beyond concerns about the land and water resources, a January 2020 report by 13 environmental groups found the proposed reroute of Line 3 would reverse any gains Minnesota has made in its fight against climate change.

The report estimated that the Line 3 expansion and the resultant doubling of its capacity would have the same impact on CO2 emissions as adding 50 new coal plants or 38 million additional gasoline vehicles to the road.

And each year the pipeline operates, it will release 193 million tons of harmful greenhouse gases — from oil extraction to burning — which is more than Minnesota released in all of 2016, according to the report.

Legal challenges could halt construction. So could President Biden.

Line 3 is currently facing legal challenges at both the state and federal level.

“There are very important concerns that have not been appropriately addressed by the state or the federal government — climate, issues concerning tribes and tribal citizens’ well-being, and water quality,” said Moneen Nasmith, staff attorney at Earth Justice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization.

Nasmith has been working on Line 3 litigation for several years and has worked closely with the Red Lake and White Earth tribes as well as Honor the Earth, a Native-led nonprofit environmental justice organization, and other local groups.

On March 23, oral arguments began in the first of two Minnesota state lawsuits. In that suit, the Minnesota Department of Commerce is joined by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Honor the Earth, the Sierra Club, and other organizations in suing the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The lawsuit claims that oil demand does not justify the extension of Line 3 and that the oil spill analysis was improperly done.

Minnesota Public Utilities Commission executive secretary Will Seuffert said via email that the commission “extensively considered the impacts of climate change in making its decision, in particular Chapter 5 of the Environmental Impact Statement [which] addresses air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change issues.”

On the issue of tribal rights to the land, Seuffert said: “The Commission does recognize the Treaty of 1855. Several tribal nations participated in the proceedings, taking different and competing positions, and the Commission considered all of that input, and the Treaty of 1855, in making its decisions.”

Senogles, who attended the hearing, told me: “It was a pretty good hearing. The judges asked questions that gave me hope that they are understanding our argument and seeing what we’re trying to express.”

In the second state lawsuit, Friends of the Headwaters, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, the Sierra Club, and Honor the Earth argue that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which has regulatory control, didn’t consider the long-term or climate impacts of the project.

Had they been properly considered, Nasmith told me, “there’d be no way for the project to proceed.”

At the federal level, the same five plaintiffs are challenging the Army Corps of Engineers for issuing the water permit for the project without doing a proper assessment of its environmental impact.

“If we were to win any of the cases, it would stop Line 3,” Nasmith said.

US-ENVIRONMENT-ENERGY-OIL
Aitkin County sheriffs arrest “water protectors” during a protest at the construction site of the Line 3 oil pipeline near Palisade, Minnesota, on January 9, 2021.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

“We’ve had four administrative law reviews and we’ve gone through all this work with the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs — it’s a little bit like the election, where we’ve gone through the entire process but people don’t want to accept that process,” Enbridge VP Fernandez said in a March 6 interview with PBS.

But those fighting against Line 3 aren’t convinced.

“There’s a lot of unjustified blind faith that this company that has a troubled track record, to say the least, will build and operate this pipeline in a way that is sufficiently protective of the waterways and wetlands that it’s crossing,” Nasmith said.

They’re not relying just on the lawsuits to stop the project, though. They’re calling on President Biden to stop the pipeline.

Legal experts told me the Biden administration could halt construction on Line 3 and make Enbridge apply for another permit that more fully considers the project’s potential impact on the environment, Indigenous rights to tribal lands, and climate change.

Back in August, when she was still president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Biden’s domestic climate czar Gina McCarthy tweeted her support for “Indigenous leaders and climate activists in urging @GovTimWalz to oppose Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline and protect Minnesotans’ health, water, and land.”

Now that she’s in the administration, though, it’s unclear whether McCarthy still supports opposing the pipeline. It’s also unclear what recently confirmed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico and the first-ever Native American to be appointed to a Cabinet position — thinks about Line 3. Vox reached out to a representative from Haaland’s office for comment but did not receive a response as of time of publication.

The White House declined to comment on the record for this story. However, a spokesperson speaking on background told me that “President Biden has proposed transformative investments in infrastructure that will not only create millions of good union jobs but also help tackle the climate crisis.”

“The Biden-Harris Administration will evaluate infrastructure proposals based on our energy needs, their ability to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions by 2050, and their ability to create good-paying union jobs,” the spokesperson added.

But the pressure on the Biden administration to act to stop Line 3 is growing.

Resistance on the ground has grown with the warmer temperatures. There are now multiple protest camps along Line 3’s expanded route, with activists committed to doing everything they can to get Biden to revoke the federal permit. Some protesters have been arrested while putting their bodies in the line of construction or simply for being in the area.

For Senogles, the experience of being arrested while defending the land is one she knows firsthand. She told me she spent a night in jail back in December after attending a protest against Line 3 at the Palisades site, one of the biggest protest camps.

“There was a boy sitting in a tree who had been there for 10 or 11 days and they were coming to take him down and we were all gathered there trying to get in the way,” Senogles said. “They arrested us, flopped us around a little bit, made us sit outside with our hands behind our backs in below-zero weather.”

“While we were still standing there, they just came, got him down, and tore down the tree while we were still standing there — that’s how fast they work,” she said.

For her part, Aubid is staked out about two football fields away from the Mississippi River, where she’s watching Enbridge to make sure they don’t start drilling. When asked what would cause her to stop her hunger strike, Aubid replied: “When they shut down Line 3.”

Tania Aubid, activist and member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, speaks to protesters about the environmental and human risks of allowing the Line 3 pipeline to be built across northern Minnesota, on January 29, 2021, in St. Paul.
Tim Evans/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But while Aubid is determined to continue her protest, she’s not letting it get in the way of her participation in traditions.

“Right now, we’re in our maple sugar season time. We’re boiling down maple sap into maple syrup and maple sugar. Those are the things we do as Ojibwe people,” Aubid said. “Life goes on as we are fighting this pipeline up here.”

Correction, August 17: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of crude oil leaked in the original Line 3 pipeline spill and the Kalamazoo River spill. For Line 3 it was 1.7 million gallons; for Kalamazoo it was 1 million gallons.

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