With President Biden’s January 20th executive order canceling permits for the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline, my involvement with the Montana Sierra Club gave me some backseat insights into the many stages of pipeline resistance. Organizers often begin with lawsuits, sometimes with Indigenous groups or tribes as the leaders or co-plaintiffs challenging various legalities of pipelines. These challenges, which are necessarily based on what existing laws will recognize, often have to do with water crossings, endangered species survival, and Indigenous sacred sites and treaty territories.
Organizers check the boxes of every aspect of civic engagement to draw attention to these challenges, organizing letter-writing campaigns and public commentary addressed to elected officials and the agencies that issue permits to these pipelines, like the Department of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers. They hold marches and sit-ins, and write op-eds for the newspapers. At the end of that process, the companies seeking to build usually receive their permits. Many lawsuits can delay construction for a while, even though pipeline companies’ usual playbook includes constructing while permits are appealed in court, so they can later argue that they’ve invested too much to turn back on the project. In the last month, three major oil pipelines – Keystone XL (KXL), the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), and Enbridge Line 3 – have come to the forefront as environmental injustices the Biden administration must address.
During the Obama presidency, the KXL pipeline made national headlines. Most Americans were unaware, however, that after then-President Obama rejected KXL’s construction in 2015, Donald Trump put the project back on track at the beginning of his presidency in 2017. Between 2017 and 2021, organizers and activists, especially in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, have mobilized to fight this pipeline returned from the grave, even as the pandemic descended.
Unlike KXL, most pipeline protests in the U.S. receive little national media attention. That includes pipelines like Spectra Energy’s natural gas pipeline, which the Center for Earth Ethics’ Karenna Gore was arrested protesting in 2016. The Standing Rock Sioux led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which peaked in 2016, only garnering mainstream coverage when its resistance camp grew so large that people around the world knew its name and supported the resistance on social media. Similar to KXL, President Obama canceled permits for DAPL in 2016 just before he left the presidency. President Trump resurrected the pipeline in 2017. Since then, the Dakota Access pipeline has been funneling oil from North Dakota to Illinois for nearly four years.
Since late November, news of another major oil pipeline resistance has spread through organizing communities. In northern Minnesota, Enbridge, a Canadian oil transport company, is constructing a new and expanded Line 3 across the Canada-U.S. border. Anishinaabe (Ojibwe)-led resistance groups have called for support from around the country. Enbridge’s first Line 3 was built in 1961, and its over 900 “structural anomalies” have finally pushed Enbridge to seek to reconstruct the pipeline along a new route, increasing its size and capacity, creating the ability to transport tar sands oil from Canada. Enbridge has released no plans for cleanup of the original Line 3 and its many leaks, and no laws in the state of Minnesota require it to do so. The original Line 3 pipeline cuts through the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations. Both the first and second Line 3 pipelines cut straight through the wetlands and wild rice growth that are sacred to the Anishinaabe people. In fact, treaties with the U.S. government in both 1842 and 1855 promised the Anishinaabe people the rights to hunt, fish, and gather from this territory of theirs. With the oil leaks and spills we know will follow this new pipeline construction, all of these ways of life are threatened.
Enbridge began constructing the new Line 3 in late November 2020 immediately following state and federal permitting of the pipeline. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, environmental groups, and the Department of Commerce of Minnesota are all involved in litigation against the pipeline, filed in December. For reliable, updated information on the pipeline resistance, see this Medium article. Only one tribal government out of the five in the immediate area of the pipeline, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, reached a financial settlement with Enbridge for the construction of the pipeline through their territory. However, Winona La Duke’s organization, Honor the Earth, reports that the Fond du Lac Band’s “agreement” misrepresents the situation the tribe faces.
Since the election in November, communities around KXL, DAPL, and Line 3 have looked to the Biden administration to continue acting on its promises for progressive environmental governance. KXL opponents have had the first victory. In North Dakota where the Dakota Access pipeline transports oil across Sioux treaty area, leaders from four different Sioux tribes sent a letter to President Biden asking him to shut down DAPL. Over in Minnesota, as Enbridge burrows under the Mississippi, water protectors call on President Biden and his nominated secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) to cancel permits for Line 3 as well. While a presidential decision can kill a pipeline for the remainder of a presidency, in these struggles only one thing is for sure: The protests, led by Indigenous water protectors around the country, only grow bigger with each new pipeline.
Here are links for further involvement in the Enbridge Line 3 resistance.
Author, Tess Gallagher Clancy
CEE Field Ed Student, MDiv candidate at Union Theological Seminary