Enbridge continues winning legal victories as activists race to stop Line 3 before it’s finished

By: - June 18, 2021 8:05 am

More than 2,000 people converged on northern Minnesota to oppose further construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline on June 7, 2021. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

For six years, environmentalists and Native tribes have been trying to stop the Canadian company Enbridge from building a new oil pipeline through northern Minnesota. So far, Enbridge has been winning, with another recent victory this week in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Despite the blow, activists say a long summer of opposition to Line 3 is just heating up. Opponents continue chaining themselves to equipment and facing arrest in an effort to slow construction while Enbridge races to finish the project in the coming months.

On this week’s episode of Reformer Radio, we explain Line 3’s history and the future of the project.

Here are three takeaways from the podcast:

The story of Line 3 is a long and complicated one.

The existing Line 3 was built in the 1960s, when commercial production of oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada was taking off. The Alberta tar sands cover thousands of square miles — an area large enough to be seen from space — and contain a reserve of about 165 billion barrels of viscous, sticky oil. Oil executives spent decades and millions of dollars trying to find an economical way to process the oil, then built pipelines like Line 3 to ship it.

Line 3 is aging and constructed with technology and materials that are no longer in use. It has leaked 18 times since 1990 — including the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history, near Grand Rapids in 1991. Canadian oil services giant Enbridge says the corroding pipe will require more and more upkeep to avoid spills in the future.

In 2014, Enbridge announced plans to replace Line 3, and the company submitted its first permit applications the following year.

It’s an extremely divisive project, and the fight is about more than a pipeline.

Opponents started gearing up to fight the pipeline as soon as Enbridge released the proposal. New pipelines require a number of approvals from several state and federal agencies, and opponents filed legal challenges wherever they could during the permitting process. The reviews and litigation stretched five years, and Enbridge got its final permits in November 2020. Construction started the next month.

The pipeline has support from labor unions, which have agreements with Enbridge to staff the project, and from some people along the route, who see it as an economic boost to their towns. They say we need the oil that will flow through the pipeline, and this is the safest way to transport it.

Indigenous people are leading the movement against the pipeline, along with environmental groups. They say the project threatens Minnesota’s natural resources, and the cultural significance of the lands and waters near the route magnifies the risk for Native people. Indigenous people also say the project violates the 19th-century treaties establishing their rights to hunt, fish and gather in northern Minnesota.

Enbridge is racing to finish the pipeline before the end of the year, and opponents are doing everything they can to stop them.

Opponents are pinning their hopes on two ongoing legal challenges — one against a second state permit, another against a federal permit — to block the project. In the meantime, opposition is intensifying as people organize protests and even chain themselves to pipe or sit in work trenches to physically stop construction.

More than 2,000 people participated in a march against the pipeline in northern Minnesota in early June as part of a massive demonstration called the Treaty People Gathering. The same day, 200 people were arrested or cited after occupying a nearby Enbridge work site.

Despite the interruptions, construction is still on track, Enbridge says. The pipeline is scheduled to carry oil by the end of the year.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.

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