Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, stands in front of a group of Line 3 protesters at an Enbridge pump station on Aug. 20, 2021. (Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer)
A cloud of road dust obscured the group outside the Enbridge pump station. Backlit by the wavering early morning sun, they held a prayer before moving into action.
The only witness: A crude, wooden-rifle-clutching dummy propped up next to signs reading “Minnesotans for Line 3” and “No trespassing — I own firearms and a backhoe.” A few of the opponents of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline scrambled under the metal fence. Two people locked their arms into PVC pipe inside concrete-filled barrels in the pump station entrance. A group carrying “Stop Line 3” signs gathered behind them.
Then, with no law enforcement in sight, the equipment-filled workyard became their catwalk.
The 50-some participants had been encouraged to dress in drag for the protest Friday in support of Two-Spirit and LGBTQ members of the anti-Line 3 movement. Clad in dresses, Daisy Dukes, cat ears and face jewels, they strutted to Britney Spears as fellow protesters cheered.
The dog days of summer have been bittersweet for “water protectors,” as members of the fight against Line 3 call themselves. Moments of joy like these take place even as a devastating reality sinks in: The pipeline is weeks away from completion, and they won’t be able to stop it.
Many feel betrayed by a governor and president who pledged to prioritize tribal relations and environmental issues, then remained silent as construction barreled ahead. They’re considering how to use lessons learned for future fights, even as they mourn the loss of this one.
“It’s like that David and Goliath story, but this time, Goliath still won,” said Jaike Spotted Wolf, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Sahnish Nation. “But when the pipeline is over, there’s a lot of other Indigenous issues that need to be addressed. We can’t just walk away.”
But for others, the winding down of the project feels natural and inevitable after six years of permitting, review and litigation, and almost a year of construction. Jeremy Gunderson, a steward with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, said the months of work provided stable paychecks for him and a few thousand union workers — and will help meet the ever-growing demand for oil.
“Line 3 has been a long time coming,” Gunderson said. “(Oil) is going to be here today; it’s going to be here tomorrow; it’s going to be here a long time, until we have a means to transition away from it. And pipelines are the safest way to transport it, no question about it.”
It’s a victory for Enbridge, which says the permitting and approval process for Minnesota’s 337-mile portion of the Line 3 replacement is the longest in company history. The pipeline is 90% complete and scheduled to carry oil by the end of the year.
“We hoped all parties would come to accept the outcome of the thorough, science-based review and multiple approvals of the project. Line 3 has passed every test,” Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said in a statement.
Despite the opponents’ likely failure to stop the pipeline, global trends may be on their side. An International Energy Agency’s report on the future of fuel asserts that “rapid changes in behaviour from the pandemic and a stronger drive by governments towards a low-carbon future have caused a dramatic downward shift in expectations for oil demand over the next six years.”
Those changes come amid a summer of draught, historic fires in both Canada and the western United States and an ominous report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that warns of a grim future without a rapid move away from carbon-intensive fuels.
‘We’re starting to rise up’
Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and leader of the Line 3 opposition efforts, stood in front of the pump station entrance Friday, an American flag wrapped over her ribbon skirt. Behind her, about 15 protesters formed a human chain around the duo locked into the blockade.
“This is a call of distress, and Biden, you should know that,” Aubid said. “We are not going to take it no longer.”
Campaign promises by President Joe Biden and Gov. Tim Walz gave Line 3 opponents hope that the project would meet a swift end during their tenure. President Joe Biden said he would be a “climate change pioneer.” In 2017, Walz tweeted “Any line that goes through treaty lands is a nonstarter for me.” His choice of running mate, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of White Earth Nation, has remained opposed but is powerless to stop it.
After taking office, Walz and Biden signaled support for the $4 billion project.
“It feels quite a bit like betrayal,” said Jason Goward, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which initially opposed the project then agreed to let Enbridge build the new pipeline through their reservation. Goward worked on the Line 3 replacement for several months, then quit due to concerns about the environment and workplace culture.
Now part of the resistance movement, Goward said he’s still optimistic that regulatory or legal action will stop the pipeline. None of the flurry of legal challenges filed by project opponents have been successful so far, but several cases in state court and federal court are ongoing.
Among them is a first-of-its-kind “rights of nature” lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that names manoomin — or wild rice, a sacred food for the Ojibwe — as a plaintiff, filed by the White Earth Nation in early August. In another blow for Line 3 opponents, the Department of Natural Resources filed an injunction last week seeking to block the suit.
Still, project opponents aren’t slowing down. The night before the pump station protest, Camp Migizi, an opposition camp outside Cloquet, bustled with both seasoned and new protesters from Minnesota and across the country.
The wooded lot, packed with tents and campers, is just feet away from pipeline construction. The buzz of generators powering floodlights mingles with the evening chirps of frogs and crickets. In the morning, campers wake to the ground shaking during drilling and digging.
Seated around a campfire, Gabriel Saldivar said many people have known for some time that protests wouldn’t be enough to block construction. Still, the loss is difficult to process, they said. Saldivar has been splitting time between their home in Washington and Camp Migizi since March.
“It drags you down,” Salvidar, who is Hopi and Zacatecos, said. They picked up a chicken pecking at the dirt near their feet, petting it as one of the camp puppies looked on. “But it’s not an option, not fighting. We’re going to do it.”
For supporters of the pipeline, the project’s impending completion feels like a return to business as usual.
Brian Holmer, the mayor of Thief River Falls, said the influx of workers ordering takeout and buying gift cards helped the city’s struggling businesses get through the worst of the pandemic. He estimated as many as 600 stayed in the area during peak construction.
The increased traffic didn’t come without harm, though. Multiple people allegedly assaulted by pipeline workers sought help from a nonprofit shelter in the Thief River Falls area in the spring, and the shelter received increased calls for service and reports of sexual harassment at local businesses.
Workers are starting to leave Thief River Falls as construction winds down, but the economic boost will give many shops and restaurants some wiggle room as they adjust to a new normal in this phase of the pandemic, Holmer said.
Gunderson, the pipeline worker, said the end of the project is “just another chapter in the book” in his line of work. Pipeline opponents criticize the 4,000-some construction jobs as temporary, but Gunderson said that misrepresents the nature of their work.
“We’re not temporary workers. We’re professionals,” he said. “This is what we do: We work on a project that gets completed, and we go to the next project.”
Gunderson said in a typical summer, he works on a string of projects that each last less than a month. But Line 3 has given him nearly a year of 60- to 70-hour weeks, while allowing him to stay close to home. Gunderson will also stay on for cleanup and restoration after the pipeline is completed and said he’s been impressed by the emphasis on safety for workers and the environment.
“This has been a good project for most everybody that’s been a part of it,” he said.
Despite the challenges and defeats, people involved in the efforts against Line 3 say they would do it all again. The work has created a sense of community that many have been seeking for years — especially Indigenous people, many of whom find themselves surrounded by fellow Indigenous activists for the first time.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been regarded as a matriarch,” Spotted Wolf, a leader at Camp Migizi, said. “I’m turning 43 in less than three weeks. It took 43 years to experience feeling that my voice is important, that I have something to say and that people want to hear it.”
Like Saldivar, Spotted Wolf planned a short trip to Minnesota, only to end up staying for months — and Spotted Wolf’s time here isn’t over yet. They said there’s no plans to close down Camp Migizi for the winter, and they’ll be here to help expand the organizing efforts to other issues, whether that’s another pipeline or Indigenous mental health, environmental justice or education.
“There’s a story in Indigenous culture about how the rainbow people will come together — that means everybody from all tribes, white, Black, brown, everything — and unifying, for sovereignty and liberty. That would be this generation, and so far I can see it playing out,” Spotted Wolf said. “We’re starting to rise up.”
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