Does the U.S. Really Need Another Oil Pipeline?

By Sonali Kolhatkar, is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

A decades-old pipeline called Line 3, run by the Canadian company Enbridge, is in the midst of a controversial upgrade sparking fierce resistance from Indigenous communities living along the route. Line 3 is being replaced in order to enable the transport of nearly 800,000 barrels of dirty tar sands crude oil per day from Calgary, Canada, to Wisconsin. The majority of the pipeline cuts across northern Minnesota through the heart of lands where the Anishinaabe people have treaty rights to hunt, fish and harvest wild rice and maple syrup.

Line 3 joins a growing list of controversial oil pipeline projects targeted by the burgeoning Indigenous-led climate justice movement. In his last year in office, President Barack Obama responded to the powerful and internationally hailed convergence at Standing Rock in South Dakota by halting work on the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Almost a year earlier, he had canceled the Keystone XL pipeline—which was another major target of climate protesters. Entering office in January 2017, President Donald Trump promptly revived both projects and eventually greenlit the Line 3 pipeline. Once Joe Biden entered the White House in early 2021, he canceled the doomed Keystone Pipeline but has yet to take action on reversing Trump’s approval of DAPL or canceling the Line 3 project.

Indigenous leaders, embodying the spirit of Standing Rock five years ago, have been resisting the Line 3 replacement project and are now calling on all Americans, including those who are not Indigenous, to join them for what is being called a “Treaty People Gathering” from June 5 through 8 to demand an end to the project. One of them is Nancy Beaulieu, co-founder of the Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging(RISE) Coalition, and the northern Minnesota organizer for 350.org. Beaulieu explained to me in an interview that, “as Indigenous people, we have the inherent responsibility to protect the waters and all that is sacred. And as settlers—people who signed those treaties with our ancestors—they have an obligation to uphold those treaties.” In other words,“everyone has a responsibility to the treaties” signed with tribal nations.

Non-Indigenous Americans have largely forgotten not only that we have treaty obligations, but also that we live in a nation with a bloody history of settler colonialism. Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum demonstrated that ignorance in his tone-deaf comments on CNN—which later got him fired—when he said, “We birthed a nation from nothing. Yes, there were Native Americans, but there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Leaders like Beaulieu are determined to fight such erasure by reviving the conversations around treaty obligations and how the fight against pipelines and climate change is central to Indigenous stewardship of the natural world. She sees the June gathering as building on the Standing Rock mobilization and the Keystone pipeline activism, saying it is “the same exact thing but with different tribes.”

According to Beaulieu, President Biden could cancel the Line 3 project with “the stroke of a pen,” and she is perplexed about why he doesn’t just do so. When the president convened a virtual climate summit in April with dozens of world leaders, he pledged to slash the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent in less than a decade. That is an enormously ambitious goal—one that would only be helped by a cancelation of the Line 3 pipeline project.

“Not only should Biden stop Line 3 but he should also step in and stop these corporate giants responsible for the mess they’re leaving us in in this beautiful country of ours,” said Beaulieu. Instead, she worries that “corporations are just buying their way through lobbying our politicians.”

When politicians do stand in their way, companies like Enbridge respond with shocking impunity. Take the case of Michigan where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year demanded the closure of another decades-old pipeline run by Enbridge called Line 5. That pipeline, first built in 1953, carries more than half a million barrels of crude oil per day under the Great Lakes and has had dozens of leaks over the years, spilling more than a million barrels across its length. Michigan’s Great Lakes hold more than a fifth of the entire world’s fresh surface water and remain in jeopardy as the aging Line 5 pipeline continues to operate. Rather than comply with Gov. Whitmer’s order, Enbridge, backed by the Canadian government, simply refused to shut it down.

Enbridge is taking a similarly defiant position in northern Minnesota with its continuation of the Line 3 replacement project in the face of mass opposition. Shockingly, the company is even going as far as anticipating police responses to protesters by paying into an escrow account to reimburse local Minnesota law enforcement departments for costs related to policing the resistance. In other words, a Canadian fossil fuel corporation is essentially hiring public servants to protect their private financial interests against the public.

Pipelines leak. That fact is as inevitable as greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change. The United States has the largest number of pipelines, both existing and planned, than any other nation on the planet. According to Greenpeace, Enbridge’s pipelines have leaked hundreds of times, spilled millions of gallons of hazardous material, and contaminated water at least 30 times. The original Line 3 project suffered the largest inland oil spill in the nation’s history in Minnesota in 1991, and Enbridge’s Michigan Line 5 pipeline dumped hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. So, when Indigenous leaders like Beaulieu say their treaty rights to pristine land and water are threatened by Line 3, the facts are on their side.

While the fate of our planet and human life remains precarious in the face of ongoing emissions and a changing climate, fossil fuel companies have been laughing all the way to the bank. According to one analysis, since 1990, when the impact of emissions on the climate was well established, the top four largest oil and gas companies on the planet accumulated nearly $2 trillion in profits. “It’s about power,” said Beaulieu. “It’s about the 1 percent and who’s going to be in charge of our government.”

However, the climate justice movement is slowly winning. A Dutch court recently ordered Royal Dutch Shell—one of those top four profitable companies—to slash its emissions by 45 percent by the year 2030 in a remarkable and historic case that could inspire similar legal challenges to other oil and gas companies. Another one of the big four—ExxonMobil, which is the U.S.’s most profitable oil corporation—is being challenged internally by an investor shareholder who ousted two board members over the company’s climate policies. It was the first time such a thing happened, prompting one analyst to exclaim, “Investors have sent a shot across the bow of Exxon, but its impact will ricochet across the boards of every major fossil fuel company.”

Joining such efforts are on-the-ground movements like the one opposing the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. As she prepares for the mass gathering in June, Beaulieu told me, “we are going to peacefully resist this pipeline, and we’re calling on all our allies across Turtle Island to come here to northern Minnesota,” using the Native American term for North America. “Treaties don’t only protect us as Native people. They protect those people that signed the treaties as well,” she added.

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17 comments

  1. Carolinian

    Guess it’s just me but when it comes to environmentalism can we leave “sacred” out of it? Of course the Christian Dominionists believe that God gave them dominion over the earth and all its creatures so if we are going to reject their made up version of events–and we should–there’s no reason why we should accept someone else’s simply in order to persuade. After all one motive for those settlers and colonialists was their belief that they had a “sacred” duty to convert the heathen and that justified territorial conquest.

    We are all Indigenous to this planet and the territorial disputes that followed have applied to the native Americans just as much as anyone else. Enbridge should be opposed on a practical and scientific basis while bearing in mind that hunter/gatherer is not a lifestyle that can support 7 billion people. How did we get to be so many? Nature made us do it.

    Reply
    1. Henry Moon Pie

      “Enbridge should be opposed on a practical and scientific basis”

      Follow the science, huh?

      These are ultimately moral judgments that must be made. Can “science” tell us whether humans have the right to continue destroying habitat and killing off species so that we can keep living in over-heated and over-cooled McMansions and driving super duper big pick ups? Can “practical” considerations tell us whether it’s right for a few thousand billionaires to control such a vast amount of wealth and power while billions have neither of those things? Can “science” make any kind of determination for us whether we should drop nukes on civilians to keep control of a couple of little islands? Did “science” provide us with guidance about what trade-off we should choose between stopping the spread of Covid and the dreaded economic damage to the bar and restaurant industry?

      Just because what’s left of Christianity in some parts of the country has devolved into Bob Jones and Liberty doesn’t mean that we should deprive humans from considering moral factors and applying the morality derived from their worldviews–aka religious views. We have no choice if we’re going to have a meaningful discussion among ourselves. Otherwise, we’re going to be buried in a lot of talk of pragmatism and “science,” most of which is just cover for the moral views of the proponents of various viewpoints.

      Reply
      1. Carolinian

        has devolved into Bob Jones and Liberty

        Since I live thirty miles from Bob Jones University let me assure you that that institution is very much in the rear view mirror, not the windscreen. And my point in the above as in so many other comments is not that we should embrace an amoral approach but rather that we should understand that “moral” is merely the codification of the behavior that society’s need to sustain themselves–in other words utterly scientific and practical.

        Why do people live in oversized houses driving oversized vehicles? For purely irrational status seeking reasons that don’t involve a great deal of thought. It’s my contention that you can’t fight irrational with some alternate version of irrational and therefore enough with the emotional appeals to “Turtle Island” etc. Perhaps that is wrong but the liberal belief that you can “narrative” problems into submission doesn’t seem to be working either.

        Reply
  2. Peter

    NO there is no need.

    However, if a company has a ton of money that they want to invest into a 100% certain stranded asset and get stuck with huge debt they will have no cash flow to pay back, then in this totally financially delusional and ignorant situation it would be a great investment if you wanted to lose most of your money and if you were the CFO get fired for not understanding relatively simple math necessary in the simple calculation. The KEY here is to STOP RIGHT NOW all large financial institutions from investing in fossil fuel projects – they just want the fees they DO NOT care if the company fails.

    Reply
    1. jefemt

      Actually, if these fossil fuel-related projects fail, the financiers get them back to re-sell, or they get bailed out because TBTF. No-downside S L I C C (self-licking ice cream cone– a feature, not a bug). Protective byzantine laws and captive regulators and courts.

      Hate to be the wet blankie, but I am not seeing the demand side dropping . That is each of us. Individually, or collectively.
      Reports abound that (surprise!!!) the 7.9 billion of us are demanding MORE, not LESS, energy.
      Even in the Age of Covid

      Got a bicycle? Walkable distance to the grocery and hardware? Home garden and putting food by? Solar array on the roof or on the sunny side of the lot? Insulate and weatherize the home? Travelling less?

      Demanding less, in general? Paradigm shifting your life? When I view the world through my poo-tinted spectacles, I for one am not noticing any substantial shift.

      Covid is a gift/test to examine and re-invent. All we apparently pine for is a return to ‘Normal’.

      I call it the Lemming Conga Line

      Think Pogo: We have met the enemy, and he is us. Well, not me, I am AMAZING!!!

      /;)

      Reply
  3. Keith Newman

    The only convincing argument made in favour of Enbridge line 3 is that if it is not approved it will be replaced by thousands of railcars transporting the diluted bitumen instead. The claim is that railcars are more prone to spills than a pipeline. I don’t know if that is true or not. I do know that perhaps 10 years ago half of a small Quebec town was destroyed when a railcar carrying oil exploded in the middle of town. It was due to poor regulations, lack of enforcement of those that did exist, and human error.

    Reply
  4. Keith McClary

    “dirty tar sands crude oil”
    It’s not “crude oil”, it’s bitumen (plus a diluent so it flows). Some of it is refined into “synthetic crude”, which isn’t quite as nasty.

    Enbridge claims there is a treaty covering Line 5.

    Reply
  5. Dee

    The topic of treaties and our responsibilities is such an important one. The history of these treaties has been largely forgotten, as has the fact that these treaties are still in place.

    To give a flavor of the dynamics that were in play at the time the treaties were signed, I am including a link to web presentations about the history of treaties in the larger area around Toronto, in Canada. The first presentation by Daryl Wybenga is really informative, and goes through the history since the first nations in the region encountered the europeans. He brings that history alive with a lot of stories.

    https://torontorap.ca/2021/02/10/indigenous-treaties-peoples-of-toronto/

    Reply
  6. Glen

    We sure don’t need a pipeline for Canadian tar sands. They actually were looking at building a nuclear reactor to provide the energy to process the tar sands to get oil. Sounds like a good way for the billionaires (hint: Koch Brothers) running the tar sand companies to bankrupt the Canadian government.

    Good times!

    Reply
  7. Pwelder

    “The claim is that railcars are more prone to spills than a pipeline. I don’t know if that is true or not…”

    Yeah, it’s true. Plus, there would also be a whole lot of new tanker truck traffic – way more risky and more annoying than rail.

    Remember that Disney cartoon movie where Br’er Rabbit does the reverse psychology thing with Br’er Fox, begging the Fox not to toss him into the briar patch?

    Shutting down Lines 3 and 5 is a truly dumb idea. The reason you don’t hear the Republicans raising more hell about it is that they’re playing the role of Br’er Rabbit – quietly rooting for the anti-carbon jihadis to succeed. It would give them a truly wonderful political gift.

    Closing those lines would if anything bring more harm than help for the environment. But it’s a great idea if you want to give Michigan and Wisconsin a hard push back toward the Trump column.

    Reply
    1. Furiouscalves

      Is it true? I google first before I make claims that derail a discussion.

      So you are in favor of environmental racism and treaty violations in favor of possibly having a neo liberal democrat 1 percent lackey rather than a republican one? And that is an environmental policy?

      This Is about someone else’s backyard to you. But you have to understand this actually is someone else’s country and they have been consistent in their assertion of rights since the beginning of their relations with us govt. it is a continuum that once you look into is definitely on solid ground legally.

      Reply
      1. Pwelder

        ” I google first before I make claims that derail a discussion. ”

        Good for you.

        Have you ever by any chance googled “Lac Megantec”?]

        Reply
  8. JOC

    Disagree. I’ll take a pipeline over rail or truck transport any day. All three are preferable to more dependence on Saudi oil. Let’s infuse a bit of pragmatism into the discussion.

    Reply
    1. TomDority

      The USA is a net exporter of energy resources- oil, natural gas etc is sold on an international market – we are not dependant on Saudi oil – Oil pipeline get crude to refinery and export. So you want to facilitate the transportation and sale of natural resources to foriegn countries in order that a few folks get rich trading in contracts at the expense of a habital planet? The expense of breaking treaties, contracts within our boarders – I will take stranding that toxic asset and stranding the investors with their pipeline asset over debauching promises and treaties any day

      Reply

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