On July 29 at around 8 p.m., the Wright County Sheriff’s Office in Northern Minnesota deployed a group of officers to assist a neighboring county’s police force to quell protests along a stretch of oil pipeline.
It was part of a five-day period of policing that began on July 28 in Thief River Falls, 300 miles north of Minneapolis, near a fenced-in drill site in which the Line 3 tar sands pipeline was being constructed. The site was situated by the Red Lake River, one of hundreds of freshwater bodies in this part of the country that offer home to catfish, pike, beavers, and wood ducks.
The officers would spend the night surveilling the area, per a police account filed to state regulators a few days later. July 28 was uneventful, as were the 30th and the 31st, the report reads. But on Thursday, July 29, a group of local environmental activists—known to many as “water protectors”—arrived to stage a direct action near the site. They arrived donning ladders, though they wouldn’t get to use them before officers began firing flash bangs, pepper balls, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, the report notes. The officers arrested 20 people that evening; some were held in solitary confinement over the weekend, per activist reports.
In the days that followed, as protestors sat in jail and Wright County officers continued surveilling the pipeline, at least one made a pit stop at Subway, where they ordered two 12-inch Spicy Italian Subs and one 6-inch Turkey sandwich. An hour later, they hit a Holiday Gas station, where they picked up four bottled Starbucks coffees (two caramel, one vanilla, and one mocha). The following day, they grabbed a cheddar bacon sandwich and breakfast biscuits at a local Cenex gas station.
A few days later, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office expensed these meals to Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline company that owned the stretch of pipe the officers had been deployed to police. The expenses were paid out a little over a week later.
$20 in sandwiches and $11 in coffees is far from all that Wright County police were reimbursed for that week; they incurred a grand total of $26,886.44 in expenses, which included mileage and staff overtime for the five days of assistance they offered Pennington County, all of which was comped by a Wells Fargo escrow account that Enbridge created when it finalized its permits for the pipeline to help Minnesota police monitor protest actions like the one on July 29.
In August, Motherboard reported that the expenses Enbridge reimbursed Minnesota police for around the surveillance of Line 3 had added up to $2 million since its creation in May 2020. But new documents obtained via Freedom of Information request show that by October 6, a little over a month later, this total had climbed to more $3 million as the pipeline neared completion. The documents, which include hundreds of invoices, overtime sheets, receipts, and emails, paint a vivid picture of how this money has been used over the last year to incentivize policing to protect a polluting pipeline.
The majority of expenses approved for reimbursement have covered officer wages and overtime, with payouts ranging from $250 to $327,000 per department. But many invoices show Enbridge paying for equipment that can be used against protesters, including gas masks, gun holsters, and riot shields. It also shows Enbridge paying for mundanities like gasoline, clothing, coffee and snacks. One ridiculous example showing what a wide variety of items cops can expense with the account is a July 28 Wright County Sheriff's Office’s order of nachos from a restaurant called Miguel’s for $2.69, including extra guacamole for $0.99.
Line 3 is a 338-mile expansion of an existing Enbridge pipeline that carries an additional 760,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. It snakes through Indigenous territories in Northern Minnesota, home to hundreds of lakes that harvest wild rice—an economically and culturally important resource for the region. It is also home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the second longest river in North America, which flows nearly 2,500 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding a diversity of ecosystems along the way.
The pipeline threatens to leak or explode and contaminate these ecosystems, activists argue, and it’s been estimated to carry enough oil to generate the equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants in carbon dioxide emissions. Its owner, Enbridge, is responsible for two oil spills. One, in 2010, was caused by Enbridge Line 6B in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River; the other was caused by the original Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.
Enbridge reported that construction on the Line 3 expansion was wrapped on Oct. 1, at which point oil had started flowing through it—but only after a year of protest and direct action by environmentalists and local Anishinaabe communities that saw nearly 1,0000 people arrested, more than 70 with felony charges, the Resist Line 3 Media Collective told Motherboard.
Though opposition to the pipeline has been building locally for years, protests didn’t ramp up until November of 2020, when the Army Corps of Engineers issued Enbridge the final documents it needed to complete construction on the pipeline: water-crossing permits that would allow it to traverse through waterways that local communities say are vital to their ways of life. A few months prior, in May of 2020, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) issued Enbridge its own set of permits to route the pipeline from the North Dakota-Minnesota border to the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. This permit included an agreement that Enbridge would create a “public safety reimbursement fund” to pay state law enforcement back for expenses related to protecting public safety around Line 3. The account was to be managed by an independent party.
This fund, established in an escrow account, set out to cover costs for “maintaining the peace in and around the [pipeline] construction site,” including emergency first responders and transportation management, according to the documentation. It was not designed to cover expenses like weapons, a representative from the MPUC told Motherboard in August.
The approved invoices that Motherboard received via FOIA request show Enbridge has used the account to cover expenses for gun holsters, baton holders, riot helmets, and shields, all under a provision for “personal protective equipment” to keep officers safe during deployments. A $74,169 payout to the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office on March 1, for instance, includes coverage of gas masks under this provision.
“This is so that they, themselves can use tear gas on people and then they have to protect themselves from their own tear gas,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, who has represented Line 3 activists in litigation against Minnesota law enforcement. “They are allowing materials that we would believe are weaponry, even if they are trying to suggest that they are defensive.”
One approved invoice, filed by the Plummer Fire Department in August, requests reimbursement for the cost of a 200-gallon Wildland Fire Engine (a firetruck with a hose) that officers noted was used explicitly for “protestor extrication. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been charged to the account to send officers to take the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Field Force Operations training, which teaches enrollees how to “use equipment to control crowds,” and “apprehend, search, and detain a subject” in mass-arrest scenarios, according to the FEMA website.
This has led to what Verheyden-Hilliard calls “a concentrated and very astonishing level of policing” around the pipeline. She recalls a sudden point in her work around Line 3 that she began to notice police presence ramping up to levels that were far beyond what she would expect.
“What are apparently small county’s sheriff's departments, they were deploying dozens and dozens of police sheriff's deputies far, beyond any normal scope, to completely peaceful activities,” Verheyden-Hilliard recalled. “And this has grown in escalation throughout the year.”
Some approved invoices for wages and overtime covered “proactive patrols”: surveillance of the pipeline without evidence of the existence of protestors or conflict. Scott Russell, volunteer with the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, sees this as evidence that the pipeline company is using local law enforcement as its own “private security.”
In his work with the Sierra Club, Russell was designated an intervenor in the MPUC’s permitting process, and saw up-close how the documents were written up. A few key provisions were added at the eleventh hour, after public comment was closed, Russell says—the creation of the escrow account was one of them.
“They did not want to create costs for local units of government around Line 3, so they created this,” Russell said. “I don't know where this proposal came from.”
But countless other expenses go beyond what Hilliard-Verheyden believes would normally be considered essential for covering pipeline protests, instead covering costs of day-to-day policing. The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office received $26,850.72 for 175 radio batteries in February, for example. The Hubbard County sheriff’s office, on two separate occasions in February and March, received $280 for porta-potties to place by the jail for officer use in the event that it becomes overcrowded with Line 3 arrestees. The same department received $2,278 for more than 25 sets of handcuffs on Sept. 2.
Other invoices cover days when very little was done. “We stood around all day in a parking lot with no action taken,” one officer from Wabasha County told a colleague in an email with submission of an $1,785.741,800 invoice for overtime in July.
Verheyven-Hilliard said the escrow account has caused countless instances of additional harm and tension for activists.
“These departments are becoming literally bought and paid for by Enbridge money through their limitless funds, requisition items and material that they wouldn't otherwise have,” she said. “So they're able to align their stock with whatever they want to request, so long as they attribute it to keeping the peace along the pipeline.”
“Which of course, the police have done the opposite,” Verheyden-Hilliard added. “The police have been exceptionally violent in attacking nonviolent peaceful water protectors.”
On a few occasions, sheriffs’ departments attempted to receive compensation for non-protest–related expenses like attorneys’ fees, office supplies, live-scan fingerprint equipment, and a cargo trailer, but were denied, according to emails obtained via FOIA request. Rick Hart, manager of the escrow account for the MPUC, denied these requests in one instance because they did not meet the criteria needed to qualify for the account, including being specifically related to the pipeline and being provided for public safety. (Hart denied Motherboard’s request for comment.)
But other non-protest–related expenses, like shirts and pants, were approved, as were expenses backdated as far as 2016, four years before the creation of the account. In February, the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office applied for reimbursement for $31,000 worth of masks and shields purchased in 2016 and $4,4000 worth of protective suits purchased in 2017, along with $422 in wages to compile invoices. All of these expenses were approved.
Verheyden-Hilliard believes this could constitute misuse of the account —but it’s hard to know, she says, because the language that was used to set it up was broad enough to allow for this kind of discretion.
Motherboard reached out to MPUC executive secretary Will Seufert for comment on this story, who reiterated the purpose of the account and the parameters around applicable expenses.
“Incrementally additional services provided for public safety, public health regulation, planning and other services uniquely provided as a direct result of the pipeline construction activities in and around the construction site,” Seufert said.
“The Escrow Account Manager has defined personal protective equipment (PPE) as equipment that protects a person from serious workplace injuries or illnesses resulting from contact with chemical, biological, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical, or other workplace hazards. Impact weapons, chemical munitions/irritants, projectiles, or other designed weaponry items are not considered PPE,” Seufert said.
Seufert did not respond to questions around backdated invoices, department supplies or the assertion that the escrow account was made without public comment.
Before Line 3, there was little precedent for the creation of this type of account. But Verheyden-Hilliard fears its existence could have long-term ramifications for future pipelines, and for the first amendment right to protest in general. So long as police forces have corporate backing, they have seemingly limitless capacity to quell civil disobedience, she says. It wouldn’t be hard for other pipeline companies across the U.S. to push for similar reimbursement schemes in the future, an idea that scares her.
“It becomes a replicating measure,” she said, “to really shut down democracy, shut down dissent, shut down the ability of people to speak out, to stand up collectively for what they believe in.”
“The fundamental dangers that this structure poses are significant,” she added. “Significant not only in Minnesota, they are significant for what it portends on a national level.”