The Oil Pipeline Battle No One Is Talking About

Activists in Minnesota are camping out in the cold and chaining themselves to trucks to stop the expansion of Line 3.
February 3, 2021, 8:38pm
Protests march through downtown St. Paul, MN with a "Stop Line 3" banner. January 29, 2021.
Protests march through downtown St. Paul, MN with a "Stop Line 3" banner. January 29, 2021. (Photo by Tim Evans/NurPhoto via AP)

Activists are camping out in 20-degree weather and chaining themselves to construction trucks to stop hundreds of thousands of gallons of a particularly toxic type of oil from coming into the U.S.

These “water protectors”, some of whom are camping out in freezing temperatures, are trying to disrupt the expansion of Line 3 in Minnesota, which carries oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin. The water protectors have been demonstrating for weeks but have failed to get national attention. Still, they’re hoping that by highlighting the dangers of a pipeline that could compromise thousands of lakes and wetlands, as well as the cultural identity of the local Anishinaabe indigenous people, President Biden will step in and shut it down.

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Construction of Line 3 started in December 2020. Enbridge, the Canadian company building the pipeline, is calling the construction a “replacement,” but it’s actually an expansion, and will run through different sections of land.  

The original Line 3 has been in use since the 1960s. In 1991, the line broke and caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Citing a need for “maintenance activity,” Enbridge proposed an expanded Line 3 in 2014, designing it to bypass a portion of the existing line in Minnesota that carries tar sands, a type of oil that is especially harmful to the environment

The Line 3 pipeline currently in operation carries around 325,000 barrels per day The expansion would raise that number to around 760,000 barrels per day. The expansion and operation would create a greenhouse gas emission equivalent to building 50 new coal-fired power plants, according to a report published by multiple environmentalist groups

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Crucially, the new Line 3 is also set to run through hundreds of essential U.S. water sources, making environmentalists and Native American tribes wary of another disaster like the oil spill in 1991, according to Tara Houska, an opponent of the project who is a tribal attorney and former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders on Native American affairs. 

“A whole portion of the line is through a bunch of untouched wetlands and rivers, streams—it’s over 800 wetlands and 200 bodies of water,” said Houska.

It would also run through land rich with wild rice, a crucial food source for the native Anishinaabe people, and something of immense cultural importance.

“Wild rice is at the center of our people’s culture,” Houska said. “It’s something that’s so important to Anishinaabe folks that it’s the only grain listed in any treaty in the United States, because it’s that important.”

Activists are hoping President Biden will step in and shut down new additions to Line 3. After all, he just canceled construction permits for the Keystone XL pipeline in January. Rep. Ilhan Omar visited activist leaders on Friday. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has said that governors should not act unilaterally to permit or stop projects.  

Walz’s office did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment. 

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There are also court challenges to contend with. 

Enbridge’s pipeline expansion is “in direct violation” of treaties signed between the U.S. and the Anishinaabe Nation in 1845 and 1855, which protect these pristine wild rice areas, according to Houska. Both treaties gave Native people rights to the land, the ability to hunt, and the ability to fish on them. 

Ojibwe groups, who are part of the Anishinaabe Nation, and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit last month to try to stop construction of the expanded pipeline. They’re arguing that the pipeline, and the dangers it could bring, harm the ability for members of the Anishinaabe Nation to hunt, fish, and generally live off the land—qualities of life set forth by the treaty agreements, said Dr. Steph Tai, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Oil spills can cause damage to fish habitats (infringing on their fishing rights), damage to land habitats (potentially harming animals hunted by the Ojibwe and thus infringing upon hunting rights), and even wild rice (infringing upon gathering rights),” Tai said. 

More protests against Line 3 in Minnesota are expected this week, with major protests in areas near Lake Superior’s north shore and the capital, St. Paul, expected this weekend.  

“We hear, ‘Well, the old line is leaking, so it needs to be replaced.’ But why in fact should the starting point be, ‘We need to replace it’ at all?” Houska said. “Why shouldn’t the starting point be we need to decommission the old line, take it out of the ground, and decommission tar sands as a whole?”