Opposition to the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks with the project nearly complete. Environmentalists, Hollywood celebrities and Democratic lawmakers have called on the White House to intervene at the eleventh hour, arguing that the risk of a potential spill is too great and tribal sovereignty has been violated.
If completed and fully operational, the Line 3 pipeline will be able to carry 760,000 barrels a day of Canadian oil from North Dakota to Wisconsin. Most of the opposition has centered around 337 miles of the pipeline in Minnesota that crisscrosses dozens of bodies of water, including near the start of the Mississippi River.
Hundreds of people have been arrested in protests around the pipeline.
“The main concern is a spill. It crosses so many rivers, if a spill happens at a river site, the entire stream would be contaminated … our ecosystems would never recover,” Sam Strong, secretary of the Red Lake Nation, told ABC News.
More than 50 cities rely on the Mississippi for daily water supply, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service.
“It’s some of the most pristine land in the entire United States, one of our national treasures, and they chose to put this pipeline directly through those headwaters. Who is making those decisions?” he said.
The company building the Line 3 pipeline, Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. said the pipeline is actually safer for the surrounding area than the older pipes it's replacing. The EPA and Department of Justice ordered the company to replace the aging lines in 2017 and Enbridge Chief Communications Officer Mike Fernandez said they've taken multiple steps to limit the impact on the sensitive ecosystems around the new lines, including using thicker materials and engineering lines to go deeper below areas that feed into the Mississippi.
“This has been a six-year regulatory legal, science-based process where everything's been tested,” Fernandez told ABC News in an interview.
But the construction hasn't been without problems. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fined Enbridge $3.3 million for “unauthorized groundwater appropriation," on Friday. According to the state agency, Enbridge has dug deeper in some areas during construction than its permits allow, and, as a result, the company disturbed an aquifer and released millions of gallons of groundwater while the state struggles with a drought.
The Red Lake Nation joined the White Earth Band of the Ojibwe tribe, Honor the Earth, the Sierra Club and others in a number of lawsuits trying to stop the project, but the Minnesota Courts sided with the State and Enbridge Energy, the pipeline owner, in the lengthy permitting process. [LINK?]
A D.C. federal court has yet to rule on a lawsuit arguing that permits for the project issued by the Army Corps of Engineers should be re-evaluated.
The Department of Justice, so far, has defended the Corps, and the White House has deflected questions, citing that case. Activists argue the president and his team could, if they chose, take a more active role and ask the Corps to conduct further impact studies.
“President Biden took decisive action on day one in office to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline protecting cultural resources, land and water of tribal nations along the route. Now, President Biden, Jaime Pinkham [Acting, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works] and the US Army Corps of Engineers have the full authority to hit pause on these pipelines until a proper assessment of the dangers they pose is completed,” a group of tribal leaders wrote Friday.
The project began as a replacement. Enbridge was instructed in 2017 by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice to replace the old, failing pipeline. The company said the new pipes are engineered to be safer for the surrounding area.
“This has been a six-year regulatory legal, science-based process where everything's been tested,” Enbridge’s Chief Communications Officer Mike Fernandez told ABC News.
Those protesting the pipeline, though, balk at the notion that this was about just upgrading pipelines. After all the permitting, mapping, and debate, the new pipeline now runs on a route that is a third new, and the pipeline will be able to carry nearly double the amount of oil, according to Enbridge and state documents.
Questions of tribal sovereignty
Fernandez said the new route was evidence that tribes were consulted in the process as the line was adjusted around some landmarks and tribal borders. A few local tribes have agreed to work with Enbridge Energy and allow the pipeline to run through their land. Others, however, have braced for the pipeline to cross land they lay claim to without their permission.
“We can say that there was consultation or conference with our tribes, but at the end of the day, those words, those feelings, those thoughts were not taken into consideration when decision making was done. And so for me, that feels very insincere,” Minnesota State Senator Mary Kunesh told ABC News at a protest rally Labor Day weekend in Bemidji, Minnesota. She said she's seen echoes of Standing Rock and the debate over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
After repeatedly writing to the White House asking President Joe Biden to intervene, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., brought several of her fellow Democratic colleagues to her home-state to meet with the “water protectors,” as many in the opposition call themselves.
“It is really not just an environmental issue here. It is an issue of, you know, solidarity with our indigenous neighbors. It is about standing up for Indian nations. It's about fulfilling the treaty rights that we have as part of our laws in this country,” Omar told ABC News during the group’s trip.
Earlier this month, the White Earth Band of the Ojibwe tribe brought a novel case to tribal court, listing wild rice as the key plaintiff, and arguing nature itself has the right to exist and is threatened by this project.
Emission reduction goals and the energy future
Biden held a second global summit on climate change Friday and urged his counterparts to set aggressive benchmarks for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Still, climate scientist Heidi Roop, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said it is hard to imagine the president meeting his own emission goals with a new pipeline like this bringing more oil to market.
“The new pipeline is designed to carry around 760,000 barrels of oil a day. If we look at the emissions associated with the combustion of that amount of fuel, it translates roughly into around 38 million, the equivalent of 38 million cars on the road. Every year, or around 45 coal-fired power plants burning,” Roop told ABC News.
“If we just consider the consequences to climate change investments in fossil fuel infrastructure that will increase our ability to consume fossil fuels, which are the root cause of our warming planet, sets us in the wrong direction,” Roop continued. “If we want to avoid the worst impacts of a changing climate. We have to start considering other tools in our toolbox that are going to support and sustain society.”
Fernandez said Enbridge wanted to be a part of transitioning to an energy future that relied more on cleaner energy but argued there was still a strong goal demand for oil.
Complicating the debate around for this pipeline in particular, is the exact type of Canadian oil that Line 3 is designed to transport: tar sands. A heavier oil that requires significant energy to both mine and refine, tar sands is considered one of the dirtiest options.
“So the question is, are we going to have the same demand for oil in 2015, if we have it 2021, and I don't think that's the case," Arvind Ravikumar, an expert in the climate impacts and energy infrastructure and associate professor at the University of Texas - Austin, told ABC News. "Therefore, when we are thinking about building these new pipelines, we have to think not just about the climate impacts of the oil that's going to flow in tomorrow, but about whether that infrastructure for fossil fuels is necessary for the next 30 years.”