By BECCA MOST
The Minnesota Daily
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Following the approval of several permits up until Nov. 30, construction is now underway on a new Line 3 crude oil pipeline that will eventually run across north Minnesota.
Citing concerns about the environmental effects of oil spills, health risks and harm to Indigenous communities, some University of Minnesota students, faculty and alumni have for years been fighting plans for the Enbridge Energy pipeline.
Once built, the new Line 3 — a replacement for a pipeline built in the 1960s — will run from Alberta, Canada through North Dakota and northern Minnesota to the city of Superior. The new line will be capable of moving nearly 760,000 barrels of crude oil a day and will emit 273.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, The Minnesota Daily reported.
People living nearby having reason to be wary of Enbridge Energy. The company was responsible for the largest inland oil spill in the country in 2010 when a Michigan pipeline and leaked at least 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
Among the chief skeptics of the project is Maddie Miller, a University of Minnesota third-year individualized studies major who started the Students Against Pipelines student group last year and was an intern at the nonprofit organization MN350, which was doing pipeline advocacy work last fall and summer. Miller is also the environmental-accountability director of the Minnesota Student Association.
When the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved a water permit for the project on Nov. 12, 12 of its 17-member Environmental Justice Advisory Group resigned in response. Miller then helped draft a petition to University President Joan Gabel, urging the University to make a public statement opposing the pipeline.
“As the largest public educational institution in the state, the University of Minnesota is greatly influential in Minnesota’s economic and scientific future,” the petition said. “The University of Minnesota also prides itself on its environmental stewardship and intends to become carbon neutral by 2050, but an oil pipeline with the carbon emissions of 50 new coal-fired plants would be a detriment to much of that progress.”
With their campus’s location near the Mississippi River, university officials are keenly aware how much an oil spill would harm the river’s water quality and ecosystems, the petition said. Acknowledging that the college is on land that was forcibly taken from Dakota and Ojibwe people, university officials’ letter called on the university to take further responsibility and advocate against a pipeline they contend will directly violate treaty lands and harm Indigeneous peoples.
Signed by the American Indian Student Cultural Center, UMN Climate Strike and several other organizations, the letter was passed by the Minnesota Student Association unanimously on Nov. 24. Miller said she and her fellow organizers are still waiting on Gabel’s response.
Tara Houska, a University alum, tribal attorney and Couchiching First Nation citizen, has been fighting the Line 3 pipeline for nearly seven years, leading national policy work and talking to lawmakers and shareholders.
Founder of the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous women and Two-Spirit-led pipeline-opposition group, Houska and other advocates have been living in a resistance camp 200 yards from the pipeline’s route, growing food and training others in ways to take “direct action.” Houska said the pipeline will disrupt land treaties reached with the Anishinaabe people, harming the Red Lake, White Earth, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac and the Big Sandy Lake Bands reservations.
The pipeline will also run within half a mile of 17 wild rice beds. Wild rice is a significant staple food and source of revenue for many Indigenous people, said Wabigonikwe Raven, a member of the Giniw Collective and enrolled member of the Lac Courte Orielles Anishinaabe tribe.
“Not getting this pipeline built is really important to me,” Raven said. “It’s bigger than all of us, because once it gets put in the ground, it doesn’t just stop there. Pipelines leak and destroy ecosystems.”
Laalitha Surapaneni, an assistant professor of medicine at the University, has been providing testimony and pushing against the pipeline for years. She was one of many medical professionals who helped organize a rally at the State Capitol in January calling for the governor to acknowledge the dangers posed by fossil fuels and oil spills.
Surapaneni said the pipeline project has come under fire from frontline workers in northern Minnesota, where construction is now taking place. Although Enbridge has said the pipeline will create thousands of jobs, most of the people working on it are not from nearby places.
Another opponent, Christy Dolph, became involved with Line 3 starting in 2017, when she testified before the Public Utilities Commission about the environmental harm that could be caused by the proposed new pipeline. A former University water resources scientist, Dolph specializes in streams, rivers, lakes and wetland ecosystems.
Dolph said the best way to preserve these ecosystems is to avoid putting them at risk in the first place.
The planned route for Line 3 will take the project through 818 wetlands, over 200 streams and lakes, including Lake Superior, and across the Mississippi river twice. Tar-sands oil, the type the pipeline will transfer, is different from other types because, when spilled in water, it sinks below the surface rather than floats to the top. That trait makes it particularly difficult to clean up.
“We don’t have time to sit back and passively do research in our lab when the stakes are so high, and the crisis is so dire,” Dolph said. “If we want to solve these problems, we really have to take what we know and start making decisions upfront, … especially when we know fossil fuel use needs to be downscaled or eliminated immediately. We have a handful of years to really turn things around.”