Minn. oil pipeline fight stokes threats, fears of Standing Rock

Tribal warriors greeted Dakota Access pipeline security with their fists in the air in 2016. Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2016

Each day for decades, five pipelines have quietly pumped more than 2 million barrels of Canadian crude oil below northern Minnesota’s forests, lakes and rivers to refineries around the Upper Midwest.

It’s a network that for years saw little public scrutiny. The lines were built in an era with no federal environmental law requiring studies or public hearings, keeping opposition to a minimum.

Those days are gone, replaced by a massive multi-year permitting process that requires transparency and public input — and an environmental movement determined to make its voice heard.

That was never clearer than last year when what began as a small protest over the route of an oil pipeline near North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation mushroomed into a monthslong international incident.

Protesters ultimately lost that fight after Donald Trump became president. Many of those same activists, though, are focusing now on Minnesota where Enbridge Energy hopes to build a new pipeline to replace its aging Line 3.

Activists are pressing Minnesota officials now to deny the permit and kill the project. State officials and company executives working to head off a confrontation say they’re doing more than ever to listen to the concerns of those in the pipeline’s potential path.

That may not be enough to stop a confrontation.

“If that permit is issued, you can be sure you will have Standing Rock in Minnesota. I will tell you that,” White Earth tribal member and Honor the Earth executive director Winona LaDuke said prior to one of 22 public meetings state regulators recently held across northern Minnesota.

“We’ve been very clear with the state representatives, and the governor of Minnesota, that if they approve this line, there will be tens of thousands of people in Minnesota.”

Enbridge's proposed route.

A map of Enbridge’s proposed route. Courtesy of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Those protests drew international attention. Thousands of tribal and environmental activists set up protest camps that were occupied for months. Dozens were injured in clashes with police.

There are similarities between the Enbridge proposal and the Dakota Access line in North Dakota. They both travel very near current Indian reservations, and in both cases potential spills could do significant harm to important natural resources.

The Dakota Access line travels underneath the Missouri River, from which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe draws its drinking water. Line 3 would travel through the ancestral land of several Ojibwe tribes, where they hunt, fish and most importantly gather wild rice, a central part of traditional diet and culture.

There are also significant differences, both in how the process for approving the pipelines has played out, and in efforts of the tribes, the state, and Enbridge to engage in that process.

In North Dakota, while the tribe did voice its concerns to the company building the pipeline early in the process, it did not engage in the 13-month public process, said Julie Fedorchak, a North Dakota Public Service Commissioner.

“There was just an awful lot of public input, unfortunately one of the entities that did not participate was the Standing Rock tribe,” she said. “So we had no idea when the tribe came back after we approved it that they had any concerns at all.”

Contrast that with Line 3. Not only are Native American activist groups like Honor the Earth involved, but four tribal governments have formally intervened early in the proceedings.

“I think that’s very important to establish the groundwork,” said Joe Plummer, an attorney representing two of those tribes, the White Earth and Red Lake Nations.

The state is more involved, as well. State agencies did not adequately consult with tribes about the Sandpiper pipeline, Plummer said, a separate project that Enbridge ultimately dropped last year after it invested in the Dakota Access pipeline.

“Now all of a sudden, the Minnesota Department of Commerce has pulled almost 180 degrees from that earlier position and has reached out to the tribes,” said Plummer. “Whether or not that will translate into meaningful action … that remains to be seen. ”

Enbridge has also taken some cues from the Standing Rock protests.

Dan Nanamkin drums with a procession

Dan Nanamkin, of the Colville Nez Perce Native American tribe in Nespelem, Wash., right, drummed with a procession through the Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannon Ball, N.D., Dec. 4, 2016. David Goldman | AP 2016

“I think what we’re doing now that’s different is just increasing the capacity in our organization to engage,” said Paul Eberth, who directs the company’s Line 3 replacement project.

The company has added people to better reach out to tribes and others. One result of that outreach, he said, was a decision to reroute the pipeline around an important wild rice lake after the White Earth Nation voiced concerns.

“We’re working hard to respect the sovereignty of the tribes and the rights that they have both on and off reservation, and make accommodations in our project to do that,” Eberth said.

The question is, will those accommodations be enough to appease opponents who say the pipeline poses too big a pollution risk to the lakes and rivers of north central Minnesota, and would add to the effects of climate change?

A big sticking point could be Enbridge’s plan to decommission the existing Line 3, leave it in the ground, and build a new line along a different route, south of the existing pipeline corridor.

That’s a non-starter for White Earth tribal member Bill Paulson.

“If they proceed to move forward and try to enter another corridor with this pipeline, I will be personally up on the line,” he said. “And anybody that wants to join me I will take care of them and help them get there also.”

Paulson has started a camp on the White Earth reservation he calls Camp Turtle Island. He said nine people are living there now who oppose the pipeline or who want to learn about Ojibwe culture.

If a new pipeline is to be built, he said, he wants the old line removed and cleaned up, and a new one put in its place. “I think that would be the bare minimum of anything that I would even consider being agreeable.”

Enbridge argues that removing the old line would actually create more environmental and safety risks, because it’s located only 10 to 15 feet away from other operating pipelines in the company’s mainline corridor, which currently carries 2.9 million barrels of oil every day from Canada.

“The use of 50-60 ton excavating equipment around the live pipelines to remove Line 3 poses an inherent integrity and safety risk to the active pipelines, as well as to the environment, construction workers, and the general public,” said Enbridge project director Barry Simonson.

In Bemidji, Minn., tensions are already running high, even though any decision on the pipeline isn’t expected until next spring. Last December Enbridge halted a meeting after protesters disrupted it. In February shots were fired at the front door and windows of Enbridge’s office in town.

“I just feel there’s a middle ground we can reach,” said Beltrami County commissioner Jim Lucachick. “We don’t have to be doing drive-by shootings or screaming and yelling at other people. It just doesn’t make for a good environment.”

The next attempts at finding that middle ground will occur this fall, when more public hearings on the pipeline, this time in front of an administrative law judge, are scheduled.