The Biden administration may have finally put the Keystone XL pipeline to rest, but Tara Houska has hardly had time to celebrate.
Just a week after President Biden revoked Keystone’s border-crossing permit, Houska was on a video call in late January with a dozen other Indigenous activists and over a thousand spectators. She was calling on them to join her fight in northern Minnesota to stop another trans-U.S.-Canada oil pipeline: Line 3.
After obtaining the final necessary permits in November, and with a Minnesota appeals courton Feb. 2 denying a request to stay construction, Enbridge Energy is speeding forward with its Line 3 replacement project, hoping to finish building the 1,031-mile-long pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the Midwest before the end of the year.
That has Houska, and other Indigenous and environmental activists who have long fought Line 3 and similar fossil fuel infrastructure, scrambling to delay construction as they await rulings on several legal challenges to the project and call on President Biden to intervene.
Over the last couple months, opponents to Line 3 have been ramping up their efforts to stop it, marching down streets, blocking roads and chaining themselves to construction equipment. In one encounter, an individual spent more than a week in a tree, suspended dozens of feet above the frozen ground, to delay work in the area.
Resistance camps and protests, where activists call themselves “water protectors” and “land defenders,” have cropped up near half a dozen cities and small towns along the pipeline’s proposed route in northern Minnesota.
“Just under 100 people have been arrested out defending our beautiful territory here, defending our wild rice, trying to protect the sacred with our bodies and with our freedom,” Houska said during the Jan. 26 call.
The new Line 3 would replace the original one built in the 1960s and would cross 337 miles of some of Minnesota’s most pristine streams and wetlands, where Houska and other activists say any spills would cause “irreparable” harm to bodies of water where local tribes fish, harvest wild rice and hold treaty rights.
Enbridge says replacing the old Line 3 is the best way to prevent future spills while continuing to meet the country’s energy needs. But opponents say the project tramples on Indigenous rights and would lock Minnesota into years, if not decades, of further dependency on fossil fuels at a time that the world economy is transitioning to renewables.
Until Line 3 is officially dead, Houska—a member of Couchiching First Nation and founder of the Indigenous advocacy group Giniw Collective—said she’ll keep fighting the pipeline any way she can. And activists say they expect the encampments, which sit just outside Line 3’s construction zone and act as bases of operations for protesters, to only grow larger as the weather gets warmer.
“Please find your bravery,” she told the online crowd. “There are nine folks who just got arrested yesterday. It’s not that bad. Defending the land is a beautiful thing, it’s a beautiful risk to take.”
Biden’s Response to Line 3, Dakota Access Remains Uncertain
How the Biden administration will respond to growing calls to intervene with Line 3 in Minnesota and the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota remains uncertain.
Prominent progressive leaders, including Minnesota’s Rep. Ilhan Omar and Massachusetts’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called on Biden to shut down the Dakota Access and block Line 3. But some energy experts say the situation is complicated, and that Biden must walk a fine line between pursuing his climate agenda, while also maintaining good relations with Republicans and the Canadian government.
By intervening with the Keystone XL, Biden has made other trans-Canadian pipelines into the U.S. more valuable and potentially more politically damaging if he chooses to take similar action on them, said Ben Cahill, the climate and energy analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In some ways, Biden had to act on Keystone, Cahill said, because the project had become a “totemic” issue for political parties that had long drawn their battle lines on the subject. And when Biden won the election, it was expected for him to act on the pipeline, he said.
“The Keystone XL pipeline was a special case,” Cahill said. “To some extent, I think the same thing is true for Dakota Access because it became so politicized. I’m not sure that the Line 3 replacement project has that kind of high profile.”
Biden has promised to make environmental justice, including elevating the rights and voices of Native Americans, a cornerstone of his administration and signed a series of executive orders that moved to strengthen those pledges.
When asked how Biden planned to respond to calls to intervene on the Dakota Access and Line 3, the White House responded with a statement that said the administration “will evaluate infrastructure proposals based on our energy needs, their ability to achieve economy wide net zero emissions by 2050, and their ability to create good paying union jobs,” while ensuring that “such proposals comply with all legal obligations.”
While climate and Indigenous activists want him to cancel both pipelines, such tandem rollbacks would make it difficult for Alberta’s vast deposits of tar sands oil to get into the United States for refining and would likely create a problem in relations between Canada and the U.S.
Opponents to Line 3 have said that while they hope Biden will take action, they won’t wait around for it. Last week, Indigenous activists launched a new campaign that aims to convince 18 major banks that are funding the project to drop their investments.
“As we learned at Standing Rock, Indigenous land defense poses a deep reputational risk to the financial institutions profiting from oil pipelines,” Houska wrote in an email blast. “Our commitment and self-sacrifice in taking this direct action sends a clear message to Wall Street executives that funding toxic projects like Line 3 comes with what bank executives call ‘social risk.’”
Standing Rock Protests ‘Set the Tone’ for Today’s Environmental Movement
The environmental movement has come a long way since the 2016 Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, where Houska and thousands of other people rallied behind the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to fight against the development of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Not only did those protests bring together Native Americans across the country under one banner, but it also elevated environmental justice and Indigenous rights issues in a way not previously seen in the mainstream media or the environmental movement, Houska said in an interview.
Violent clashes between demonstrators and a heavily militarized police force, captured by photojournalists and on cellphone videos, spread rapidly over social media, showing Indigenous and environmental activists being sprayed with fire hoses, attacked by police dogs and shot with rubber bullets in below-freezing temperatures.
That galvanized the environmental movement, and many in the public, to confront how racial justice and environmental issues intersect, said Houska, who was arrested with hundreds of other demonstrators at the Standing Rock camps for trespassing and other charges.
“I think that the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline set the tone for the rest of the environmental movement,” she said.
Today, Houska, who was born in International Falls and obtained her law degree from the University of Minnesota, spends much of her time at the resistance camps along the route of Line 3, where she trains other “land defenders” how to participate in civil disobedience, engage with government officials and spread awareness of their cause.
Helen Clanaugh, a freshman at St. Olaf College—a liberal arts university south of the Twin Cities—is one of those recruits. Since the beginning of January, Clanaugh has left her life at the dorms to help organize at several of the camps in northern Minnesota and coordinate efforts to shuttle people in from bigger cities like Minneapolis and Duluth.
When she’s not camping in tents, Clanaugh said, she’s living with other protesters in shared housing arrangements in nearby towns. “I grew up in Duluth … and have seen firsthand how the land and water gives back to us,” she said. “It’s also important that we stand in solidarity with Indigenous relatives because they were on this land first.”
The camps have also garnered attention from prominent political leaders like Rep. Omar. On Jan. 30, the liberal firebrand visited with Native leaders, including Houska, at one of the resistance camps and called on President Biden to stop the pipeline from moving forward.
“Climate change does not stop at the border of a reservation or a state or a country,” Omar wrote in a letter to the president. “The decision that U.S. entities make on Line 3 is a decision made for the entire world, and for all coming generations of humanity.”
Minnesota Already Suffering Billions in Losses Because of Climate Change
Like the Keystone XL, Line 3 would act as a main thoroughfare for carbon-intensive Canadian crude into the United States. The thick, heavy slurry is a mixture of oil, sand and clay, requiring specialized equipment and more electricity than other crude to process it into usable products like gasoline.
That alone has environmental advocates calling the project detrimental to Minnesota’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. Running at full capacity, the new Line 3 would generate 193 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to Enbridge’s environmental impact statement. That’s the annual equivalence of the emissions from a dozen of the nation’s largest power plants, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
Those emissions could be a problem, since the state is off track to meet its goal to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2025, according to a biennial report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released last month. That report shows that statewide emissions fell just 8 percent since 2005.
Minnesota has also become noticeably hotter over the last few decades, driving more frequent extreme weather, affecting ice cover and soil moisture and altering wildlife behavior and plant growth, says a major 2015 report from the Minnesota Department of Health.
Since 1960, the state has warmed at an average rate of about half a degree Fahrenheit per decade, the agency says, with seven of Minnesota’s top 10 hottest years on record having occurred between 1998 and 2012. That makes Minnesota one of the fastest warming states in the country, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In many ways, that warming has equated to increased costs, too. Record floods last spring caused Minnesota an estimated $33.1 million in damages. And between 2000 and 2011, extreme heat was responsible for over 1,000 hospitalizations, 8,000 emergency department visits and nearly 40 deaths in the state.
“Minnesota has already experienced billions of dollars of economic harm due to climate change,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a lawsuit his office filed against the fossil fuel industry in June 2020. “And without serious mitigation,” Ellison added, the state “will continue to suffer billions of dollars of damage through midcentury.”
The suit—one of more than a dozen similar legal challenges across the country—accuses ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and three Koch Industries entities of willfully deceiving Minnesota consumers so they could continue to sell their petroleum products, which for decades they had known would cause devastating climate change.
Koch Industries, which owns a major oil refinery in Minnesota through its subsidiary Flint Hills Resources, has a big stake in the completion of Line 3. For decades, Enbridge-owned pipelines, including Line 3, have fed energy-intensive but cheap Canadian crude to the Pine Bend oil refinery in southern Minnesota.
That refinery has been a cash cow for Koch Industries, accounting for more than a third of the company’s entire profits in 1982, according to Christopher Leonard’s book, “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America.” Today, Pine Bend handles a quarter of all Canadian tar sands oil entering the country, including from Line 3, Ellison’s lawsuit said.
Line 3 is vital to Pine Bend’s operations and its replacement must be completed, Flint Hills wrote in a letter to Minnesota regulators in 2018. “The importance of the Enbridge pipeline system to Minnesota, including the proposed replacement of Line 3,” the company said, “cannot be overstated.”