Developments over the past year have reinvigorated a six-year long battle in Minnesota as environmental advocates, Indigenous tribes, and community groups ramp up their fight against the construction of Line 3. The pipeline, commissioned by Canadian company Enbridge, would run across Northern Minnesota and contribute an equivalent amount of carbon to the atmosphere as an estimated 50 coal plants per year.
The fight in Minnesota over Line 3 is emblematic of repeated wrongdoings at the national level, in which the monetary interests of big corporations have been prioritized despite the destruction of human and non-human life and violations of Indigenous sovereignty. Its outcome will be a defining moment for how the United States, and newly elected President Biden, will handle pipeline disputes in the future, particularly in the face of the climate crisis. Examining the policy decisions leading up to where we are today and the multifaceted approach activists are taking to stop construction, the importance and growing power of the Stop Line 3 movement is clear.
What is Line 3?
Line 3 is a tar sands crude oil pipeline operated and owned by the Canadian energy transportation giant, Enbridge Inc., since 1968. The old pipeline is deteriorating and requires both updates and partial reconstruction, so in 2014, Enbridge proposed construction for Line 3 in a new route in Northern Minnesota that would meaningfully increase the amount of oil transported daily across the state. The new pipeline project would cost at least $4 billion and move hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil each day from Canada’s tar sands region to Superior, Wisconsin.
Enbridge says that they will acquire all the environmental permits necessary to ensure environmental protection, and that the replacement of the pipeline will have many benefits such as boosting the Minnesota economy and creating 6,500 local jobs. However, accounting for the carbon pollution created from the oil moved through the pipeline over 30 years, the Administrative Law Judge who reviewed the project estimated that it will create roughly $287 billion in climate damage.
North Dakota and Wisconsin each approved segments of the pipeline in their respective states in 2016, leaving the 337-mile strip of pipeline updates in Minnesota a deeply contested final step towards Enbridge’s Line 3 project’s completion. At every stage of the construction process in Minnesota, the project has been met with litigation from a number of environmental advocacy and Indigenous groups.
In May of 2020, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) issued a certificate of need and a route permit for Line 3. In November, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Army Corps of Engineers issued key water crossing and storm water permits for the construction of Line 3. A day after the final permit was approved at the end of 2020, Enbridge hastily began construction amid ongoing legal challenges. In response, advocates have ramped up efforts to stop Line 3 through grassroots protesting and additional legal appeals.
Who Opposes Line 3?
Beyond the obvious climate concerns associated with increasing the capacity of fossil fuel energy in the region, the proposed pipeline would have many other environmental and social consequences, particularly for Minnesota’s Native Nations. Most importantly, the new construction would violate the treaty of the Anishinaabeg, infringing on the rights of the Ojibwe people by endangering hunting, fishing and cultural resources vital for their survival. Because of this, Indigenous organizations such as the Giniw Collective, Honor the Earth, Rise Coalition and Gitchi Gumi Scouts have led grassroots action and protesting along the construction route. Three Ojibwe nations have also taken action through legal means, issuing a series of lawsuits and appeals.
The pipeline’s route would cross 200 bodies of water, and Minnesota tribes fear its construction would inevitably lead to an oil spill, given that Enbridge has been responsible for over 800 oil spills in the last 15 years.
Additionally, the construction of Line 3 has brought over 2,000 temporary workers into the state, posing safety risks to Indigenous people living along the pipeline route especially given the ongoing pandemic. A 2016 report also connected an influx of temporary workers to an increase in sex trafficking and other crimes against Indigenous people, and many Indigenous activists have cited this as an important reason why stopping the construction of Line 3 is critical.
Line 3’s construction comes at a pivotal moment when young people are taking unprecedented action to hold policymakers and corporations accountable for their role in exacerbating climate change. Because of this, groups like the Youth Climate Intervenors and student-led university groups have played an important role in the fight against Line 3. At eight colleges in Minnesota, hundreds of students have staged demonstrations in solidarity with frontline resistance to Line 3.
Environmental organizations in Minnesota are also a part of the fight against Line 3. Prominent groups in the Minnesota climate policy arena like MN350, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), the Sierra Club, and others have made legal and advocacy efforts of their own, as well as offered expert support to other leading groups in the movement.
Grassroots protests are underway and planned throughout the state, with local community members coming out to show support and stand in solidarity against Line 3 construction. Local groups like Northfield Against Line 3 were created in response to the state’s inaction in stopping construction, and have mobilized to work with other groups in planning and protesting.
Though the PUC, MPCA, and other governing bodies have given Line 3 construction the green light, other state actors have expressed concerns about it. 12 out of 17 of the MPCA’s environmental justice advisory group offered their resignation in response to the MPCA’s approval of a critical permit for Line 3’s construction saying they, “cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on Black and brown people.” The Minnesota Department of Commerce also found that there was no need for the project, and has taken the unusual step of appealing the crucial “Certificate of Need” permit issued by a fellow state agency.
The Public At Large
In 2018, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) solicited public input about the Line 3 project, before approving key permits needed to continue construction. Over 70,000 individuals gave feedback during the public comment period, and 94% of these comments opposed the construction of Line 3. Despite widespread opposition, the PUC granted the project two necessary permits in June of that year which propelled construction forward.
People across the country are also supporting the efforts to stop Line 3 construction. The Stop Line 3 movement has garnered national attention, and advocates against similar pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL pipeline have shared their support in pipeline opposition. Petitions to Stop Line 3 have been signed by hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
Who Supports Line 3?
While the vast majority of public commenters opposed Line 3, the pipeline does have supporters. Many of these supporters, which include local and county governments and chambers of commerce near the pipeline route, cite the jobs and local tax revenues provided by the pipeline (although Enbridge recently took 13 Minnesota counties to court in a tax dispute). Some labor unions have also been strong supporters, and two unions have taken the side of Enbridge in lawsuits over Line 3.
Line 3 also has powerful support, however, from the fossil fuel industry. Enbridge is one of the largest Canadian oil companies and operates North America’s largest natural gas utility by volume. Brent Murcia, a law student and student attorney for the Youth Climate Intervenors, told Climate XChange that Enbridge has invested significant resources to exaggerate its grassroots support: “It’s an illusion created by a company with a tremendous amount of power to create that appearance.” In both 2018 and 2019, Enbridge Energy Partners spent the most in Minnesota on lobbying. Obliterating records, Enbridge spent $11 million in 2018, or roughly one seventh of the total money spent on lobbying in Minnesota. The majority of this money went towards advocating for Line 3 before the PUC. Murcia explained that the company rented billboards, flooded newspapers, radio, and the internet with ads, and utilized a number of other tactics to create the appearance of public support for the project.
Silence Coming From Key State Government Officials As Others Voice Opposition To Line 3
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has consistently shied away from commenting directly on Line 3 and taking a stance of either opposition or support for the project. The Walz Administration’s repeated evasion on the subject has left ambiguity about the extent to which Walz is in favor of construction. Though in the past, Walz has spoken more generally saying that pipelines of that nature require a “social permit,” or consensus from residents affected by its construction, the MPCA and PUC’s permit issuances last year have made many feel as though Walz has chosen the wrong side.
Meanwhile, a number of the state’s House and Senate members have vocalized their support of constituents fighting against the project. On February 5th, 2021, 27 MN House Representatives and 11 MN State Senate members sent a letter to President Joe Biden requesting he take action to halt construction.
The Key Word To Describe The Efforts To Stop Line 3 Is “Movement”
Amelia Vohs, attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) representing the Youth Climate Intervenors in their PUC permit appeals, explained that there is a strong working relationship between groups allied against Line 3. Vohs told Climate XChange, “We are talking about collective strategies and brainstorming together […] Everyone has an expertise and different angle to bring to the table […] There’s so many different efforts and not everyone is involved in every strategy, but we are generally all collaborating and supporting each others’ work.”
Speaking on MCEA’s specific role in Stop Line 3, Vohs added, “We want to come into this effort in the right way and uplift community voices like those of the Climate Intervenors and Indigenous voices who have been so critical in this fight. We aim to provide expertise but not be in the way of having the people who are on the frontlines fighting be the focus and where the attention is.”
Margaret Breen, a part of the Pipeline Resistance team at MN350 echoed Vohs sentiments. “Different people on the [MN350 Pipeline Resistance] team entered the movement for different reasons whether human rights violations, Indigenous rights or climate change, but we have all learned and grown and developed an appreciation for the multitude of reasons for stopping Line 3,” she said. MN350, like many other groups against Line 3, are working from a number of different angles on the issue. Breen explained that the work MN350 is doing falls under four categories: persuading elected officials, frontline support, base building, and media and communications.
Resistance to the pipeline is a movement, not led by any one group, but by people united in a common cause. Movements gain power from numbers, and it is evident by the sheer amount of protests going on in the state and lawsuits filed against construction, that this movement has the capacity to create change.
A Multi-Strategy Approach To Stop Line 3
As construction begins, new protests and demonstrations break out across the state
Groups have been protesting the construction of Line 3 for years, but new efforts have emerged this year in response to November’s permit decisions. As these peaceful protests have grown in size and frequency, many people have been cited or arrested by local law enforcement while protesting.
MN350’s Margaret Breen noted that the unpredictability of local law enforcement in Northern Minnesota has been a challenge for the Stop Line 3 movement and the efforts of MN350’s frontline advocacy. The threat of arrest during these peaceful protests is particularly salient because of the increased risk associated with exposure to the coronavirus.
Currently, major banks like Citibank, Bank of America, and JPMorgan have a $2.2 billion loan with Enbridge. The loan expires this month (March 2021), so groups opposing Line 3 have turned some of their advocacy efforts towards getting the attention of these banks, asking them to opt out of their loans to Enbridge. Protests at the locations of these banks across Minnesota have been organized and are underway, and people are also mobilizing to email the CEO’s of the banks to voice their opposition to funding Line 3.
Water Protectors have gathered and travelled along different parts of the proposed pipeline route in opposition to construction. Thousands have participated in rallies, sit ins, and peaceful protests along the pipeline corridor, at universities, and banks. Some Indigenous youth and organizers from the frontlines are also scheduled to head to D.C. in April to demand President Biden Stop Line 3.
Court battles characterize many of the opposition efforts
Since Enbridge’s initial proposal of the new Line 3, many efforts to stop the project have come in the form of legal challenges. Line 3 requires over 20 local, state and federal permits to be built, and various groups and individuals have been active in opposing many of these permits through legal processes. In August, many groups appealed the PUC’s permit decisions, including multiple Indigenous nations, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and environmental groups like the Youth Climate Intervenors. In the wake of the November decisions, some of those groups brought new legal challenges to the MPCA and Army Corps’ permit decisions.
Additional concerns related to the safety of construction during a global pandemic have also been brought to court. Two Indigenous nations, the Red Lake and White Earth Bands, filed a motion to halt the project with the Minnesota PUC that cited, along with environmental and cultural harm from construction, the health risks associated with a flux of out-of-state workers coming into the area to construct the pipeline amidst the pandemic.
Most recently, on March 23rd, the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on one of the main legal challenges to Enbridge’s Line 3. Plaintiff parties presented their best arguments to the court, asking them to appeal the PUC’s decision to approve key permits such as the Certificate of Need. A decision from the court is expected no later than June 21st.
Social media as a tool for protest in the Stop Line 3 movement
Groups in the Stop Line 3 movement have been using online platforms to amplify their voices, an increasingly important tactic for activism in the 21st century.
On February 17th, groups like MN350 called for an Art Storm to #StopLine3. Social media platforms were inundated with artistic posts in opposition to Line 3. This virtual, out-of-the-box strategy to increasing awareness about the issue was met with enthusiasm as hundreds contributed drawings, paintings, banners, and more to #StopLine3. An overview of the Art Storm can be found on MN350’s website.
Stop Line 3 calls for Biden to take executive action to halt construction
During his first days in office, President Biden issued an executive order to halt the highly contested Keystone XL Pipeline, a similarly large oil pipeline. Biden has made addressing climate change a national security imperative for his administration. In just two months, he has demonstrated his willingness to use executive power to take important climate action, such as halting Keystone XL and rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. Advocates have therefore urged Biden to halt construction on Line 3, just as he found the Keystone XL construction wrong, Line 3 construction is also unjust, and both pull crude oil from the same source.
On the topic of presidential intervention on Line 3, Brent Murcia said, “It’s an ask that is real and that people have the power to convince him to do.”
Ellen Anderson, the Climate Program Director at MCEA, told Climate XChange that while Governor Walz has so far declined to intervene in Line 3, there may be room for a discussion between the Democratic president and governor about action on Line 3.
What Comes Next?
While court appeals and protests continue, construction has been underway since December. We are already seeing many of the concerns of construction play out in real time. Two men charged in a human trafficking bust in Northern Minnesota were working on Enbridge’s Line 3, only validating the concerns from Indigenous communities. Enbridge promised that about 50% of the workers needed for the project would be from local communities, but after the first month of construction, only 33% of the workers were Minnesota residents. Construction of Line 3 has been linked to a modest number of cases of coronavirus, and the impact of the project on the spread of the disease remains unclear.
Climate Reporter Emily Atkin is on the ground in Minnesota reporting on this developing story. Follow her reporting at HEATED
In the last decade, we have seen a shift in the country’s policy paradigms, as constituents and those who represent them are moving away from valuing short-term economic interests over long-term social and environmental considerations. We are seeing unprecedented pushes for equity and inclusion in environmental spaces. Today’s fight against Line 3 exemplifies the environmental justice efforts that must be an integral part of modern environmentalist movements.
But there is still much work to be done, and no time to waste. The construction is estimated to take between six and nine months to complete, giving activists that amount of time to halt the pipeline. If you are interested in getting involved and taking action, there are a number of steps you can take. https://www.stopline3.org/ contains information and a number of resources about the movement.
The Honor the Earth website summarizes the choice every citizen and policymaker must make:
“Our Seven Generations and Seventh Fire prophecies tell us we are in the time when we have a choice between two paths. One path is well worn, scorched and leads to our destruction. The other path is new, green and leads to mino-bimaadiziwin (the good life). We must choose to walk the new path.”
The movement against Line 3 walks the new path. It is a courageous and inspiring effort to protect the environment and humankind, and in this pivotal moment in history, it is vital.