Line 3 tramples the environment and scorns Indigenous rights


Minnesota is nicknamed the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The state’s name comes from the Dakota word for Sky Tinted Water. There are over 11,842 lakes in the state. For thousands of years since the retreat of the glaciers, these lakes have nourished Indigenous cultures and provided food, water, and transportation to all Minnesotans. Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline, which crosses 800 wetlands and 200 bodies of water, is a threat to the state’s famous lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Its construction is an act of genocide towards the Native Americans whose lives have depended on the water for generations.

The ecology of Line 3

Construction of the 337-mile pipeline began Dec. 1 after receiving a final permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The project is expected to take six to nine months to complete. At 1097 miles long, originating in Hardisty, Alberta, and ending in Superior, Wis., it is the largest project in Enbridge’s history. Construction is already complete in the Canada and Wisconsin sections.

The original Line 3 was built in 1961 and has operated at half capacity due to structural issues. Enbridge has argued that the Line 3 replacement project is necessary for safety. Yet, opponents to the pipeline assert that “replacement project” is a misnomer since the new pipeline will follow a different route and will double the current oil carrying capacity.

According to Honor the Earth, the new pipeline is 36”, as opposed to the original size 34” pipeline, with the capacity to transport 760,000 barrels of oil a day. Stop Line 3 has noted that the Line 3 replacement will contribute more to climate change than the entire economy of Minnesota. The state’s environmental impact assessment found that the pipeline’s carbon footprint could be 193 million tons a year. Jim Doyle, a physicist at Macalester College, equated this to 50 coal fired power plants or 38 million vehicles on the road.

To add to the monstrous carbon footprint of Line 3 is the fact that it will be shuttling tar sands from Alberta to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior. Tar sands or oil sands are a mix of clay, water, sand, and bitumen. For each gallon of oil derived from tar sands, 5.9 gallons must be added, and two tons of tar sands are necessary for the production of one barrel of oil.

The Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, the largest bitumen deposit in the world, are a massive open pit wherein bitumen is close enough to the surface to be mined from the surface. This has created the world’s largest tailings ponds in the world, which can be seen from space and could fill 500,000 Olympic swimming pools. Tar sands has created an environmental catastrophe as Boreal forests are razed for surface mining. Tailings pits are vast toxic pits that imperil migratory birds and contaminate drinking water. Cancer and autoimmune diseases have devastated First Nations people of the region, and more greenhouse gases are released than with other oil production methods (National Geographic magazine).

Another issue with the Line 3 project is that the original pipeline will be left in the ground. Enbridge has called this process “deactivation in place.” Since it would cost the company $1.28 billion to remove the pipeline, the company instead intends to pay $85 million for deactivation in place, which entails pumping the pipeline with nitrogen and cleaning chemicals, disconnecting it, and then sealing and monitoring it. The abandoned pipeline could continue to leach oil and chemicals into the soil and water for decades to come. Enbridge claims that it will take responsibility for monitoring the abandoned pipeline at a cost of $100,000 per year, but this is not a sustainable plan. It does not designate for how long, what becomes of it if Enbridge goes bankrupt, or what happens if society ultimately ends its reliance on fossil fuels. 

Line 3 and treaty rights

Closely connected to the environmental impact of the pipeline is the impact on Native Americans. The pipeline passes directly through the Fond Du Lac reservation and is adjacent to several other Ojibwe reservations. The route is squarely located in land that is protected by 1855 treaty rights. Throughout the 1800s, Anishinabe, also known as Ojibwe, people ceded vast tracts of land to the U.S. government through various treaties. In exchange for this land, they were given rights to hunt, fish, and gather in ceded territories.

These rights were explicit in treaties such as the Treaty of 1837 and again in the Treaty of 1854 and understood to carry on into the treaty of 1855. For example, the 1854 treaty ceded 2 million acres of land in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota to the U.S. government in exchange for annuity payments in the form of cash, agricultural goods, school funding, and other goods. The treaty established the Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, and Grand Portage reservations. The treaty also granted them the right to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded territory. The 1855 Treaty established Leech Lake and Mille Lacs reservations, ceding territory in northern and north central Minnesota, where Line 3 will pass. Although the Treaty of 1855 did not specifically mention usufruct rights, these rights have been upheld by the Supreme Court in Minnesota v. the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians and LCO Band of Chippewa v. Voight, et. al.

Anishinabe activists have fought against the line because it is a matter of treaty rights, which have been upheld by the Supreme Court—rights that are a matter of life and death. There are no safe pipelines, and an oil spill could destroy the plants and animals that the Anishaabe people depend on for cultural, spiritual, and material survival. Honor the Earth noted that Enbridge has had over 800 spills in the last 15 years, including the catastrophic Kalamazoo River spill of 2010.

On March 3, 1991, there was an Enbridge oil spill near Grand Rapids, Minn., which spilled 1.7 million gallons of oil onto the Prairie River, a tributary of the Mississippi, which was frozen at the time. Elsewhere in Minnesota, there was a 2002 oil spill in Cohasset and a 2007 explosion that killed two workers near Clearbrook (Herald Review).

The impact of Line 3 on wild rice is of particular concern to Anishinaabe water protectors. Wild rice, or manoomin in the Ojibwe language, plays a vital role in Anishinaabe history, identity, and sustenance. In their historical narrative, they migrated into the region from the east, following a vision to settle where food grows on the water. The wild rice or Zizania palustris that they found in Minnesota and Wisconsin became a critical food source, which shaped patterns of movement as groups settled near rice beds in the fall. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota has more acres of wild rice than any state in the country. Line 3 passes through some of the best wild rice areas in the state. The plant is sensitive to water levels, damming, pollution, invasive species, genetic modification, and climate change. An oil spill from Line 3 would be disastrous to the wild rice beds that feed and provide income to Native Americans.

Extractive industries & missing and murdered Native American women

Another concern expressed by Native American activists is trafficking. Native American women and girls make up 1% of Minnesota’s population, but account for 8% of murdered and missing women. Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task force reported that each month 27-54 Native American women were considered missing in the state. Throughout the United States, in 2017, 5646 Native American women were reported missing. The murder rate for Native American women is 10 times that of other Americans. Work camp module housing or “man camps” have been connected to increased sexual violence and trafficking of Native American women. The Canadian government released a 1200-page report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which found extractive industries and man camps to exacerbate violence against women (The New Republic).

During the Bakken oil boom of 2010-2013, advocates from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations noted that the number of calls for services for trafficking, sexual violence, and domestic violence doubled or tripled. The National Institute of Justice reported that four of five perpetrators of violence against Native Americans are non-Natives. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-tribal members on tribal lands (Boston Globe).

In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reported that state regulators expressed trafficking concerns in their reports related to Line 3, which stated “the addition of a temporary, cash-rich workforce increases the likelihood that sex trafficking or sexual abuse will occur.” As a condition for permitting, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has required that workers on the pipeline must receive training on trafficking.

Anti-trafficking advocate Sheila Lamb said that this does not adequately address the problem. Likewise, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has set up a hotline to report trafficking or to seek resources called Your Call MN. Advocates feel that because victims may be isolated or controlled, a hotline is not enough. From a socialist perspective, this is a carceral approach, which is not sensitive to the trauma caused by law enforcement and fear of punishment because sex work is criminalized.

A pipeline in a pandemic

Beyond climate change, water, and soil pollution, and treaty rights, activists have expressed concern regarding pipeline construction and COVID-19. According to Minnesota Public Radio News, as of Dec. 30, about 3000 workers were constructing the line, with another thousand expected to join. It is unsafe to bring thousands of workers to rural areas of Minnesota that lack hospital beds and adequate medical infrastructure.

These areas are also in and near Native American communities, which have suffered disproportionately with COVID-19. As of Jan. 5, Minnesota had 5443 deaths and 423,688 COVID-19 cases. In December, over 200 health-care workers signed a letter to Governor Tim Walz to halt construction during the pandemic. Aitkin County health-care workers also asked for a delay in the pipeline construction in November, citing COVID concerns.

Activists respond

In the six years since Enbridge first applied for permits for Line 3, thousands of people have attended public hearings, participated in protests, signed petitions, attended panels and presentations, and engaged in direct action to try to stop the pipeline. According to Winona LaDuke, 70,000 public comments were submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities commission, of which 94% were against the pipeline.

In November 2015, 75 protesters occupied Enbridge’s office in Duluth, Minn., as they attempted to deliver a letter of demand to Enbridge employees. Seven of the protesters were arrested. In the past several years, as pipelines were staged in preparation for the project, there have been protests, occupations, and encampments. For example, in April 2018, water protectors converged in the tiny community of Automba, Minn., to protest Line 3 at a site where pipes were being stored. Some chained themselves to gates and equipment and were arrested.

In September 2019, over 1200 people gathered in Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior to march against Line 3. That same week, there was a march in Clearbrook, Minn., for Indigenous People’s Day. This is a small sample of the many actions that have been organized over the years.

Since construction began in December, the organizing has been ongoing. On the legal front, Minnesota Public Radio reported that on Christmas Eve, Honor the Earth, Sierra Club, White Earth, and Red Lake Nations filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the Army Corps of Engineer permit that was issued in November. The permit enables Enbridge to discharge dredge and fill material into rivers and streams. The lawsuit asserts that the tar sands will be hard to clean if there is a leak because they are heavy and would sink in water. The lawsuit also argues that the permit did not properly address treaty rights and climate change. Yet, legal action is a race against time, as the pipeline is already under construction with forests being cleared along its path.

Direct action has also been a tactic among water protectors desperate to protect their land, water, and life. On Dec. 28, activists gathered at a pipe storage yard near Backus to stage a protest. One protester attempted to block access to the yard by sitting on a wooden tripod and was arrested. Earlier in the month, on Dec. 14, 22 people were arrested near Palisade, Minn., for trespassing and unlawful assembly. The activists sought to protect a man who had been living on a tree platform since Dec. 4.

Water protectors gathered again on Jan. 2 at Great River Road in Palisade, Minn., for prayer and protest. After an altercation with police, 14 demonstrators were arrested. According to a report in Desmog, activists present at the action reported that police escalated the situation and that there were more police than protesters. On Jan. 9, hundreds of activists again gathered in Palisade to protest and challenge construction at the site. The group traveled to Hill City, a town of just under 600 people, and blocked Highway 169. Palisade has been a hotspot for resistance because this is where the pipeline will tunnel under the Mississippi River.

These actions have been a mixture of protest and direct action. There are also dozens of resistance camps along the pipeline route, the first of which were organized in 2017. Weekly protests are planned for each Tuesday in Superior, Wis., where Line 3 ends. There are also weekly protests at an Enbridge office in Park Rapids, Minn., as well as protests in Minneapolis. Aside from direct action, protests, and camps, the organizing also has a spiritual aspect, as prayer, jingle dancing, and song have also played a role in Indigenous organizing. The main organizations involved in fighting the pipeline include Giniw Collective, RISE Coalition, and Gitchigumi Scouts, frontline Indigenous-led women, and two spirit-centered organizations. Honor the Earth and Stop Line 3 are also major organizations involved in the struggle. The multifaceted struggle has delayed the pipeline for years, but time is short.

The socialist program

Unfortunately, a missing component to the struggle has been the labor movement. Aside from health-care workers, who signed a letter against pipeline construction due to Covid-19 concerns, there has not been a visible labor component to the struggle.

The pandemic only makes the situation worse, as it pits workers against the environment. High unemployment and economic uncertainty means that workers are glad to have employment, even temporarily. The 4000 jobs created from the project are union; according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 30% of the workforce are Operating Engineer union members, 30% are from Laborers International Union of North America, another 30% are from United Association Local 798 pipefitters, and 10% are Teamster drivers. In the Star Tribune article, the workers interviewed were worried about providing for their families, having employment in uncertain times, and finding work near their homes.

Yet, a worker has already died during the project. Jorge Lopez Villafuerte, age 45, died on Dec. 18 in a forklift accident. He was born in Mexico, resided in Utah, and left behind nine children between the ages of five and 21. His life was ended at a construction yard in Hill City, Minn., when he was accidentally struck by the forklift operated by another worker.

While the construction sites mandate COVID-19 testing, workers put their lives at risk by congregating together during a pandemic that is far from under control. Construction began during the heart of the worst part of the pandemic, a time when Governor Walz had closed gyms, limited social gatherings, banned indoor dining in restaurants, curtailed youth and adult sports, and relegated schools were to online learning. Even Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings were limited. But it is always Christmas for capitalism, and the nearly $3 billion pipeline could not wait.

Wage slavery and alienation often make it difficult to win workers to environmental struggles. Employment is also a matter of life and death. Yet, only socialism offers an escape from extinction and a pathway from profits and instability to sustainability. In addition to organizing in mass movements, socialists must engage with workers and join unions to fight for measures that combat unemployment such as shorter work days at full-time wages and expanded unemployment benefits.

Workers in extractive industries should be retrained, provided for during this process, and guaranteed union-wage employment elsewhere in the economy. The threat of unemployment or underemployment should not pit workers against the environment. Free universal healthcare, public ownership of the energy industry under worker’s control, and the transformation of the economy to renewable energy are also socialist demands that can fight the alienation and uncertainty faced by workers.

An article in Scientific American reported that Wellsfargo, JP Morgan Chase, Citi Bank, and Bank of America are the largest investors into the fossil-fuel industry and that student loan interest, pensions, and taxpayer money is used to subsidize the industry. An immediate demand is to open the books to lay bare the money pipeline that finances fossil fuels. More than this, banks must be nationalized under workers’ control.

Even with low oil prices, the ravages of climate change, and the eventual death of the fossil-fuel industry—either by the power of social change or the misery of social collapse—companies like Enbridge will cannibalize the planet so long as the slightest profit can be made. The drive towards profit will drive us to the grave. The only hope for the planet is the overthrow of capitalism. As we engage in this ultimate struggle, we must stand with the water protectors who are defending treaty rights and the right to survive.

We must stand against Line 3 and demand the removal of the pipes left to decay and leak in the ground. We must fight to keep tar sands in the ground and carbon out of the air. Ultimately, to protect Minnesota’s ten-thousand lakes, we must mobilize with tens of thousands of workers.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii / AP

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