The new front line for ‘water protectors’

Colorado activists head to Minnesota to protest the Line 3 pipeline, while one Boulder resident sits on the board that can stop it

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A section of pipeline is buried underground on the Fond Du Lac reservation in Northern Minnesota on Jan. 18.
Michael Denslow

The week of Joe Biden’s inauguration began with the news that he planned to rescind approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office, as part of his commitment to address climate change. For more than a decade, environmentalists and indigenous groups have fought the project, intended to carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from the tar sand oil fields of Alberta, Canada, through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, making its way to Gulf Coast refineries. 

A few states east, in Northern Minnesota, environmentalists, including some from Boulder County, are joining local indigenous groups committed to halting another tar sands pipeline: Enbridge’s Line 3. Calling themselves “water protectors” like the thousands that gathered in North Dakota in 2016 to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), at times as many as 150 protesters gather in opposition to the Line 3 project, which received final approval and began construction in December 2020. 

“I think that every rational person knows what we have to do to deal with climate change, that we need to decarbonize, we need to stop burning fossil fuels,” says Michael Denslow from Boulder. Denslow, along with a few others from Colorado, was in Minnesota over the weekend at protest camps along the pipeline route. He also recently signed an open letter to Enbridge Board Director Teresa Madden, asking the fellow Boulderite to “be a voice against Line 3 inside the Enbridge Corporation.”

In addition to the existential threat posed by climate change, those opposing Line 3 argue the project violates indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights and is causing wetland and ecological destruction, including wild rice beds used by local indigenous groups. They also raise public health concerns revolving around the coronavirus pandemic and the link between workman’s camps and missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as the probability of oil spills.   

Enbridge bills the Line 3 pipeline as a replacement project of an older, corroding pipeline built in the 1960s that “has been operating at reduced capacity to increase operational safety,” according to the company. The 1,097-mile pipeline from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin, is the “largest pipeline in Enbridge’s history,” with relatively short sections in North Dakota and Wisconsin already complete. In Minnesota, the $2.6 billion project will replace 282 miles of 34-inch pipeline with 337 miles of 36-inch pipe, as it changes its historic route. In some places the pipeline will be underground, including running beneath the Mississippi River. When finished, the average annual capacity of Line 3 will be 760,000 barrels per day.

“The purpose for doing the pipeline is about making the pipeline that’s there safer and making sure that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment,” says Enbridge Senior VP and Chief Communications Officer Mike Fernandez, citing six years of science-based environmental reviews, 70 public hearings and “320 route modifications in response to concerns about where the pipe was near, what it was going through.” 

“This really has been the most studied pipeline project in Minnesota history,” he says. “And of any project we’ve had, probably has produced the most voluminous amount of information from all facets, dealing with environmental impacts to the analysis and study of impact on tribal cultural assets.”

But Enbridge isn’t just replacing the existing pipe where it sits today. The new pipeline route moves through new territory, in large part, Fernandez says, because certain property owners didn’t want to renew easements where the original pipe is. In order to bypass the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reservation, for example, the new pipeline route cuts west and south crossing under the Mississippi River near Palisade, Minnesota, where the majority of the protest has taken place. 

Enbridge has an agreement with the Band to deactivate and remove the current Line 3 from Leech Lake land. Other property owners have until July 2025 to decide whether the existing pipe is “deactivated in place or removed from their property, subject to permitting limitations.” 

In addition to gaining approval from state and federal agencies for the project, Enbridge worked with the Fond du Lac of Lake Superior Chippewa to reconnect the pipeline in its original location, ending at the company’s terminal on the bank of Lake Superior. Fernandez asserts that restoring the historical operating capabilities of Line 3 is necessary to meet both Canadian and American energy demands as they stand today, even as both countries are committed to reducing emissions and lessening the impacts of climate change. 

“They will tell you that they’re just replacing a pipeline that already exists, but that’s not quite true,” says Amy Gray with environmental nonprofit 350 Colorado. “They are putting in a new pipeline and lots more of it than was there previously, so it does add [the equivalent of] an additional 50 coal plants to our greenhouse gas emissions.”

That’s according to an analysis by experts from 350 Minnesota and other environmental groups. Said another way, it would be like adding 38 million vehicles to the road. Reporting from DeSmogBlog suggests the emissions from the whole of Line 3 is more than the greenhouse gas emissions from the whole state of Minnesota.

According to the Minnesota Environmental Impact Statement, transporting 760,000 barrels of oil a day through the pipeline could increase carbon emissions by 193 million tons annually, acknowledging that the project “would contribute incrementally to global climate change.” 

 “This isn’t just about a little place in Northern Minnesota, this is a worldwide catastrophe. We have to change our values in order to survive on this planet,” says Sara Hersh of Nederland, who also signed on to the letter addressed to Madden. “Living in Boulder, she’s part of our community, we just thought this would be good outreach and maybe she could rethink her position on Enbridge and Line 3.”

Madden did not respond to BW’s requests for comment. As a former Xcel Energy executive, she was appointed to the Enbridge board in February 2019, several years after the governing body sanctioned the Line 3 replacement in 2014. 

“What she’s probably heard is discussions as we’ve gotten permits, and as there have been legal actions, those coming up to the board’s attention,” Fernandez says. 

He says, from a corporate board perspective, it’s very rare for a board director to register a formal dissension over a project like Line 3. 

“What’s not rare though, is for there to be robust debate and discussion, and to ask for additional information before decisions are made and wanting to make sure we’re taking every precaution,” he adds. “We do have board members who are very concerned about environmental issues, very concerned about safety issues, so our executives are appropriately grilled and questioned.”

He did not provide any more specifics about Madden’s position on Line 3, but did confirm no formal dissensions had been made. 

Additionally, opponents point to Enbridge’s history of oil leaks as cause for concern over the pipeline project. In 2010, the company’s Line 6 burst, spilling more than a million gallons of diluted bitumen from the tar sands oil field into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. It’s considered the second largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, eclipsed only by the 1991 Line 3 rupture, which released 1.7 million gallons of crude oil near Grand Rapids, Minnesota. 

Since then, there’s been 13-15 lakes along the route that no longer grow wild rice, or manomin “the food that grows on the water,” says Tania Aubid from the East Lake Band of Ojibwe. She has been at the Palisade protest camp since Nov. 29. 

“That’s what I want to prevent from happening to the rest of the wild rice beds that are here,” Aubid says. “That was something that god the creator directed us to come here and find the food that grows on the water so we can maintain our way of life.” 

Aubid says that despite Enbridge’s claims of cultural sensitivity, cultural sites — like teaching lodges, or waaginoogan — along the pipeline’s route will be destroyed as construction continues.

 Enbridge has also had several environmental and safety violations over the years, and just recently in December a worker died while working on Line 3. 

Fernandez says Enbridge is a company that “clearly in its past had issues,” but there are now folks within the company, including himself, who are “working vigorously to improve our record.”

“What we’re trying to do is to greatly enhance safety and limit the chance of any spill by the upgrade of the pipe that we’re using. So, it’s actually better technology that’s going in place to change out what’s there,” he says. 

He also argues that Enbridge is working closely with indigenous groups and organizations across the U.S. and Canada to combat sex-trafficking and sexual violence against indigenous women, as well as taking extra safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Fernandez adds the Line 3 project hasn’t been subject to “political gamesmanship” in the same way as Keystone XL, and the company doesn’t expect any action from the U.S. feds. 

But those who oppose Line 3 are hopeful Biden’s climate policies will include stopping Line 3 as well. 

“This is a historic administration,” Gray says. “The Democrats have control of the House, the Senate and the presidency, there is absolutely zero excuse for not enacting bold climate action. And if they yank the permits from KXL, they need to yank the permits for Line 3, for any of these fossil fuel infrastructure projects that are across indigenous territory and are endangering the water and the soil and the air for millions of people.”

An analysis from S&P Global and reporting from Reuters suggest that Line 3, slated to come online in late 2021, reduces the need for Keystone XL. 

That said, there are legal challenges to Line 3. In late December, two Ojibwe bands from Minnesota as well as Sierra Club and the environmental group Honor the Earth asked for a preliminary injunction to suspend construction, arguing the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t adequately address the effects of possible oil spills or evaluate the pipeline’s impact on climate change when issuing a water quality permit. The project runs close by the Red Lake Bank of Chippewa reservation and moves the pipeline closer to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe reservation. 

“It’s so important for people to support the front lines and to support these communities, like Standing Rock and (those protesting) Line 3 in Minnesota,” Gray says, of 350 Colorado, “because without massive pressure, almost any decision maker will bend to the money and the political will of the oil and gas industry.” 

Michael Denslow The entrance to a protest camp near Palisade, Minnesota

The Coloradans who traveled to Northern Minnesota over the weekend describe resilient indigenous activists and others committed to camping out in the harsh Midwestern winter in hopes of stopping the Line 3 pipeline. They recount conversations with workers, caught between the need for work and discomfort over the intent of the project they are working on. They describe destructive construction sites as crews cleared paths of trees to lay the pipeline. 

“You could just smell the freshly cut pine trees — it was really sad,” says Jesse Newman, an activist from Denver. “It was insanely depressing, and I felt immense grief. I wasn’t expecting to feel that. It was a shared experience that all of us from Colorado had.”

As of this writing, President Biden has not announced any plans to stop the Line 3 pipeline. Construction on the project is proceeding, even as a lawsuit makes its way through the courts. In the last month or so, dozens of protestors have been arrested attempting to prevent construction, including two on Jan. 14 who chained themselves together inside a piece of pipe. Protestors from Colorado and around the country plan to continue traveling to Northern Minnesota to show their support, and new protest camps are popping up along the pipeline route. 

“I don’t know if Teresa Madden will change her mind, or if Enbridge will change its mind and take all this money and invest it in a greener source of power,” Hersh says. “But wouldn’t it be grand if they did? They are the kind of company that has the power and resources to switch gears. We have to do that now. It’s really going to be too late if we don’t act soon.”