The rationale for direct action
Opponents of Line 3 say the game was rigged from the start—and that putting their bodies on the line is the only option left to stop it.
VARIOUS PLACES, Northern Minnesota—Ever since Joe Biden became president, opponents of the Line 3 pipeline have been asking him to revoke or pause Enbridge’s Section 404 permit, which allows the company to drill and lay pipe underneath several crossings of the Mississippi River.
Like Keystone XL—the permit for which Biden revoked near-immediately—opponents say Line 3 is not in line with Biden’s climate priorities. That permit was also approved in final weeks of the Trump administration without a formal environmental impact statement, according to an Earthjustice legal complaint.
But Biden has not yet responded directly to Line 3 opponents’ voices. So increasingly, they’ve been putting their bodies on the line.
Here are some things that happened on Thursday and Friday of last week in Minnesota:
A dozen protesters chained themselves to a bright green boat in the center of a worksite access road in the Savanna State Forest, seeking to delay further construction on the project.
Seven other pipeline opponents formed a blockade in front of an Enbridge pump station in Aitkin County by locking themselves to each other in the frigid cold, attempting to do the same.
Two more water protectors locked themselves to a machine on a Line 3 worksite in St. Louis County.
Anishinaabe water protector Tania Aubid reached Day 35 of her hunger strike calling for President Joe Biden to take action on the pipeline’s permit.
These are drastic examples of direct action to stop a project with national and global implications. But as far as I can tell, none of these direct actions were covered in local, state, or national news outlets.
Over the weekend, most local Minnesota news outlets ran op-eds praising Line 3 for its short-term economic impacts. All call the pipeline a “replacement,” rather than an “expansion,” cloaking the reality that Line 3 would double the current capacity of oil that could flow through the existing pipeline.
That’s just one of many reasons pipeline opponents give for resorting to direct action. They say Enbridge has outspent them in both messaging and lobbying, and that there was never a real option for rejecting Line 3.
They say the game was rigged from the start—and that direct action is the only option they have left to stop it.
Reason 1 for direct action: “A gun to our head”
The first argument Line 3 opponents normally give is that Enbridge never gave Minnesotans the option of not having a tar sands pipeline. They say Minnesotans only had two choices: keep the 50-year old corroding pipeline that would inevitably spill, or allow a new pipeline that lets more high-polluting oil flow through the region.
"It feels like it's a gun to our head," one of the state’s Public Utilities Commissioners said at a permit hearing for the project in 2018.
At that same meeting, the PUC chairwoman broke down in tears, “expressing how conflicted she was about allowing fossil fuels to cross the state for decades to come.” She didn’t want to allow that to happen—but she also didn’t want to see an oil spill from the old pipeline. "How would I feel if I woke up in five years and that line had leaked?" she said.
Enbridge eventually made the choice easy, pipeline opponents say, by pouring money into the state government. The company’s lobbying spending increased 790 percent, from about $500,000 in 2008 to a little over $5 million in 2017, according to one report. Then, in 2018, that number skyrocketed to $11 million.
In 2019, the PUC approved the permits necessary for Line 3. Then, in 2020, the state auditor found that the PUC “was not adequately prepared to administer meetings regarding a controversial pipeline” and “did not provide its staff with adequate guidance, support, or oversight, which resulted in inconsistent practices” at the meetings.
Reason 2: Cherry-picked science
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s permit to Enbridge is suspect as well, pipeline opponents say. Though the agency was supposed to assess environmental risk of the project, they say it refused to consider the potential impact of the pipeline’s wetland crossings on water quality; the downstream effects of oil spills; and climate change.
“By pre-determining what science their staff could and could not pay attention to, they entered into this permitting process with one hand tied behind their back, scientifically speaking,” a group of independent scientists who submitted comments for the MCPA’s process wrote in MinnPost.
Because of the MCPA’s approval of Line 3’s water quality permit, 12 out of 17 people tasked with advising the agency on environmental justice resigned in protest. And now, some scientists who participated in the Line 3 process are now supporting water protectors taking direct action against the pipeline.
“We went to the Governor so many times to tell him the science was clear,” said Christy Dolph, a water resources scientist at the University of Minnesota who was visiting water protectors in Northern Minnesota last week with the non-profit Science for the People. “He didn’t want to hear it.”
“We’ve seen the regulatory process fail people over and over,” she said. “This is what we have left.”
Reason 3: promised benefits “so far… a crock of shit”
Political support for Line 3 in Minnesota has largely hinged on Enbridge’s promise to provide local jobs—specifically, “about 8,600 jobs (6,500 of them local) in Minnesota over a two-year period, including 4,200 union construction jobs, half of which are expected to be filled locally,” according to Enbridge. That means 75 percent of jobs were to go to Minnesotans.
“So far, that’s turning out to be a crock of shit,” said Scott Russell, a journalist who tracks Line 3 relentlessly at the blog Healing Minnesota Stories.
In a recent post, Russell looked at Enbridge’s 4th Quarter employment report for 2020. It said that out of the 4,642 people working on Line 3, only 33 percent were from Minnesota, and 67 percent were from out of state.
Russell also found that Minnesota residents worked less hours than out-of-state workers. While non-residents worked almost 72 percent of total hours on Line 3, Minnesota residents worked just over 28 percent of total hours.
What’s more, “There’s nothing in the state’s contract and permits with Enbridge that holds them accountable to meet that 75 percent target or face a certain fine or penalty,” Russell said. This is yet another failure of the legal process that pipeline opponents often cite as a reason for direct, non-violent action.
Line 3 opponents also say Minnesotans are being mislead about the need for the oil within the pipeline. They often cite a ruling from Minnesota’s own Department of Commerce that said “Minnesota doesn't need the pipeline, in part because refineries in the state and the Midwest already receive all the oil they need.”
Reason 4: Silence from political allies
This multi-faceted case against Line 3 should be enough to get attention from state Governor Tim Walz, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and President Joe Biden, pipeline opponents say—especially since all have expressed climate change to be a top priority.
But with the pipeline nearing 50 percent completion, none have called for immediate federal action. And so direct action, again, seems like the only hope.
Some protesters still have faith in the Biden administration. They point to the decision to revoke Keystone XL’s presidential permit, and the fact that Biden’s new domestic climate czar Gina McCarthy had been outspoken against Line 3 in her previous position as head of the NRDC.
But in a recent interview with the Showtime series “The Circus,” McCarthy was careful to say that Keystone XL was not a model for other pipelines in the future.
“We’re going to look at them each individually for what they bring to the table and what don’t they bring to the table,” she said. “We are not intending to use [Keystone XL] as a way to kill everything.”
“I’m not fighting fossil fuels as much as I’m fighting for clean energy,” McCarthy added. And if that’s true, then she and the water protectors in Northern Minnesota are no longer fighting the same fight.
The Anishinaabe water protectors are fighting fossil fuels
Sasha Beaulieu, an Anishinaabe leader at the Red Lake Treaty Camp, is fighting fossil fuels. She wants everyone to know it.
“It’s part of our seven fire prophecies to protect the Mississippi River at all costs—and that was given to us 200 years before any white man stepped onto the United States,” she said. “We got those instructions to always protect this river, to always protect the food that goes on water, which is wild rice. That was so long ago, 500-700 years ago, and here we are today.”
“Once that drill comes here, we’d like to be in the way,” Beaulieu said. And they will be—whether anyone is watching or not.
Chris May contributed reporting.
Catch of the Day:
I’m pausing our regular Fish content to bring you some photos of a place actual Fish live: the Headwaters of the Mississippi River, coming out of Lake Itasca, Minnesota. These waters are at the center of the Line 3 pipeline fight, and I was grateful to be able to see them—even though it was really, really cold.
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