For seven years, Indigenous communities and environmental groups in Minnesota have fought to stop Canadian oil company Enbridge from building an oil pipeline called Line 3. This pipeline, proposed in 2014, would replace a much older pipeline by the same name, which was built in the 1960s, and has been disastrous for the environment in Minnesota. In 1991, the original Line 3 ruptured, spilling 1.7 million gallons of oil onto the frozen Prairie River in what is to date the largest inland oil spill in United States history; clean-up crews had to use hoses to suck the spilled oil off of the ice and into tanker trucks, preventing it from reaching the Mississippi River, only two miles away.
Without coordinated resistance efforts from Indigenous, grassroots, and faith leaders, the new Line 3 would have been completed in 2017; four years later, it is still under construction, and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, giving water protectors a narrow window to defeat Line 3 once and for all.
Line 3 is intended to cross under roughly 200 bodies of water, including wetlands where wild rice, an ancestral food of Indigenous people, grows. Though Line 3 shares a name with a previous pipeline, it will follow a new corridor, going under land and water that has so far remained unscathed by oil spills, and opening up the possibility of even more widespread ecological destruction. The pipeline will carry a particularly heavy type of crude oil called bitumen which sinks in water, making any potential spills very difficult to clean up.
In order to construct the pipeline, Enbridge plans to dredge and fill wetlands, drastically altering the habitat of the wild rice harvested by the Ojibwe people. Wild rice is a very sensitive plant, and is easily affected by changes to its environment; indeed, the impact of climate change on wild rice is already being felt by the Ojibwe people. Dawn Goodwin, of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, said that a recent increase in rain, likely a result of climate change, has negatively impacted the growth of wild rice. She said, “that puts our lifeways in danger because it’s all connected” (Beaumont 2021). According to a Minnesota environmental review, wild rice is “extremely sensitive to chemical pollutants,” so oil spills in rice habitat would have a severe impact on the Indigenous way of life (mn.gov).
That way of life is supposed to be protected by treaties that affirm tribal sovereignty. These are contracts between Indigenous tribes and the U.S. government “prior to 1871 that recognize and establish sets of rights, benefits and conditions for the tribes who agreed to cede millions of acres of their homelands to the United States and accept the protection of the United States in return” (mn.gov). Treaties supersede state laws, enabling a government-to-government relationship with the US, and empowering tribal governments to manage their ancestral homeland. Enbridge is attempting to build their pipeline across indigenous land, without the consent of Indigenous communities, which means Enbridge is trespassing on Indigenous land that is supposedly legally protected. Line 3 will encroach upon the Fond du Lac reservation as well as other Ojibwe treaty lands (Pember).
In a twist of cruel irony, Indigenous water protectors have been arrested at protests on charges of unlawful assembly and trespassing. Simone Senogles of the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota says she felt insulted by these charges as “It’s Anishinaabe land […] Enbridge is the trespasser, they are the criminal, and they were aided by law enforcement who are supposed to be protecting us, but instead they were protecting a corporation” (Beaumont). (The Ojibwe people are an Anishinaabe nation).
Sheila Lamb, a member of Minnesota’s MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) task force and an Ojibwe-Cherokee city councilor in Cloquet, Minnesota, shared that she’s heard from “various organizations that do direct services of a definite increase in sexual assault and sexual harassment that is being perpetuated by those working on Line 3” (Beaumont). She referenced a 2017 U.S. State Department report which proves a link between violence against indigenous women and the oil industry, and explained that “when events like pipeline construction bring an influx of affluent men to an area, it correlates with an increase in violence against women and sex trafficking” (Beaumont).
President Biden has vowed to prioritize Indigenous rights and environmental justice, but he has remained silent on Line 3. He signed an executive order on his first day in office canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, so there is already a precedent for presidential intervention in pipeline construction. Moneen Nasmith, an attorney with EarthJustice, sees a couple options for the Biden administration to step in: “the Army Corps of Engineers could revoke the Clean Water Act permit to consider new information, or the administration could revoke the existing Presidential Permit and ask Enbridge to apply for a new one” (Beaumont). Water protector and tribal attorney Tara Houska shared that Ojibwe groups have met with the Biden administration, including “representatives of the Council of Environmental Equality, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Justice transition team,” but have found that government officials know very little about tribal sovereignty (Beaumont). Houska declares “Sovereignty is sovereignty; if we say no, it means no” (Beaumont).
Indigenous communities are already seeing the effects of climate change on their ancestral homeland and way of life, and Line 3 will only exacerbate these effects. The climate crisis is already here, and we needed to build fossil free infrastructure years ago; the last thing we need is a brand new oil pipeline that will carry dangerous crude oil through delicate ecosystems for years to come, keeping an antiquated and destructive industry alive. We instead need to divert money, resources, and labor to building clean energy infrastructure, including solar and wind farms. In the words of Senator-elect Jen McEwen of Duluth, Minnesota, “If we want to have a livable planet for our future and the generations to come, we simply cannot build new fossil fuel infrastructure” (Whelan).