Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Enbridge's fast and furious pace of construction on its Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota will come to a temporary halt as crews pause work for two months beginning in April for what officials said were seasonal restrictions. 

Enbridge officials told Bemidji Now that work will continue on eight pump facilities but did not say why restrictions kicked in after the long winter.

"Winter construction has gone very well, and the project is on track for completion late this year," Barry Simonson, director of Line 3 mainline construction, told Bemidji Now.

He said most pipeline workers will begin returning to to the project in May with work expected to resume about June 1.

Nearly 50 percent of the controversial 337-mile pipeline has been completed despite several lawsuits that have have tried to halt the project while their challenges work their way through the courts.

U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington, D.C., denied a request in February by the Red Lake and White Earth Nations, the Sierra Club and Honor the Earth to suspend construction as the court considers their request to overturn a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer permit allowing Enbridge to discharge materials into rivers and streams. When the Corps issued the permit in November, Enbridge immediately began construction.

Similarly, the Minnesota Court of Appeals denied requests by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Friends of the Headwaters and other nonprofit organizations and tribes to stop construction as the court decides two cases against Enbridge.

Enbridge series pipeline - Enbridge logo

One case challenges the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approval of the state’s environmental impact statement and the certificate of need and route permits for the project; the other argues against clean water permits issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The federal court judge will hear oral arguments in March on the lawsuit; final arguments with the Minnesota Court of Appeals are expected to conclude in July.

Tribes represented by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council wrote a letter on Feb. 24 asking Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to issue an executive order halting construction while state courts consider appeals.

“Enbridge is now furiously constructing the pipeline, literally at five separate locations in an effort to construct as much of the pipeline as possible before the appellate court considers the substantive issues of the appeal,” wrote Robert Larsen, chairmen of the council, which is made up of leaders from all of Minnesota’s tribes.

Tania Aubid of the Milles Band of Ojibwe holds a bullet-riddled sign opposing the Enbridge Line 3 project in February 2021. The sign had been in front of her home. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember, Indian Country Today)

 Line 3 opponents note that courts are unlikely to order a pipeline removed once it’s in the ground.

“It’s a clear play by Enbridge to do an end-run around the process playing out here,” said Andy Pearson, Midwest tar sands coordinator for Minnesota 350.

Paul DeMain of the White Earth and Oneida Nations, lauded nature for helping to stop Line 3 construction, even temporarily. 

"Nature is working with us; the water is working with us," said DeMain, board chairperson of Honor the Earth.

Juli Kellner of Enbridge communications describes the Line 3 project as one driven by safety and maintenance concerns.

“Replacing the existing Line 3 pipeline with one made of thicker steel, with more advanced coatings, will better protect Minnesota’s environment and people for generations to come,” she said in an emailed statement to Indian Country Today.

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As the legal fights continue, opposition is building. Indigenous youth and organizers from communities along Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline routes are expected to gather in Washington. D.C. on April 1 to call attention to their struggles against oil pipelines, according to Honor the Earth.

And on March 15, actress Jane Fonda joined the fight against Line 3, meeting with water protectors near the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.

"Enbridge is a foreign company," Fonda said, in a video posted to YouTube. "They're bringing tar sands oil - the worst. We're here to try and stop it."

Minnesota cases still in court

The Minnesota governor said he would review the request from the Indian Affairs Council to halt the project but appears unlikely to do so while the legal cases are pending. Walz is a member of the Democratic-Farm-Labor Party.

In a statement to Minnesota Public Radio News, Walz’s spokesperson, Teddy Tschann, said the governor “does not believe it is within his role to stay project permits that have been issued by state agencies after a thorough environmental review and permitting process.”

Frank Bibeau, White Earth tribal attorney, disagreed.

“He is the lead executive officer for the state of Minnesota,” Bibeau told Minnesota Public Radio News. "The Public Utilities Commission is an executive branch function.”

After years of opposition, Walz greenlighted the project in 2019; he said stopping the project would violate checks and balances between the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.

Larsen also expressed concerns in the council’s letter that President Joe Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline would embolden Enbridge to further expand the Line 3 corridor to include more pipelines.

“President Biden’s decision has essentially handed Enbridge a monopoly for exporting tar sands out of Canada,” he wrote.

The original Line 3 route runs along a corridor containing six Enbridge pipelines carrying a variety of petroleum products. The parallel lines are spaced roughly 15 feet apart.

Winona LaDuke, White Earth Anishinaabe, executive director of the nonprofit Honor the Earth, joins water protectors in prayer and song on February 2021 in Palisade, Minnesota. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember, Indian Country Today)

Although Enbridge describes the project as a replacement of Line 3, opponents have long argued that since the new pipeline is larger than the existing line and includes a partial reroute, it should be considered a new project that opens up a separate corridor through which the company can add additional lines in the future. The new Line 3 is larger in diameter than the old one, allowing it to carry tar sands oil.

Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, said Line 3 is a substitute for the failed Sandpiper pipeline that would have opened a new corridor. The Sandpiper pipeline would have carried tar sands oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin, but was defeated in court by tribes and grassroots environmental groups in 2016.

Biden’s pipeline plans

One of Biden’s first orders of business as he took office was to issue an executive order canceling the Keystone XL pipeline.

In February, about 3,800 people – including leaders of 345 faith groups and organizations – signed a petition organized by Interfaith Power and Light asking Biden to use executive action to stop the Line 3 project.

Interfaith Power and Light, representing a growing alliance of the faith and Indigenous communities opposing fossil fuel expansion projects, have reached out to Gina McCarthy, newly appointed head of the White House domestic climate office. McCarthy, former head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, had signed on to a letter sent by the nonprofit StopLine3 to the Minnesota governor encouraging him to halt the project.

Although canceling the Line 3 project would appear to be in line with Biden’s pledge to aggressively confront global warming, Biden must also navigate his commitment to labor unions. Union leaders have complained that canceling the Keystone XL pipeline kills jobs, and expressed concern about the future of other pipeline projects.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Enbridge senior vice president Mike Fernandez said the company has worked to upgrade safety measures and urged the president to view the Enbridge Mainline projects, Lines 3 and 5, as different from Keystone XL.

“They already exist as energy lifelines to the U.S. and Canada,” he said.

Line 5 faces its own challenges

The Line 5 project is also in dispute. Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered in November that operations cease on Line 5, but the Canadian government is digging in its heels, refusing to accept the order.

Line 5 – which is also part of Enbridge’s Mainline system – runs more than 500 miles from Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan’s upper peninsula and under the Straits of Mackinac to Sarnia, Ontario.

Enbridge wants to replace the pipeline that currently sits on the Straits lake bottom with a tunnel running under the water.

Whitmer said the pipeline posed an environmental threat. “Enbridge has imposed on the people of Michigan an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that could devastate our economy and way of life,” she said at the time.

In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, spilling 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River, one of the biggest inland oil spills in U.S. history. It took more than four years and more than $1 billion to clean up the spill.

Part of Line 5 travels through the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation in Wisconsin; the tribe wants Enbridge to remove the pipeline from its reservation.

Tribes fear that a tunnel under the straits would pose an undue risk to their treaty rights.The line’s route through Michigan runs through the 1836 Treaty of Washington lands where, according to the treaty, the five tribes of the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority have rights to hunt, fish and gather. Tribes fear that a tunnel under the straits would pose an undue risk to their treaty rights.

Whitmer has set a May deadline for Enbridge to cease operations on Line 5. Enbridge, meanwhile, is awaiting approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction on the project.

What about the money?

Enbridge reported to its stockholders in February that the cost of building the Line 3 project will increase by $1.1 billion. The company attributes the increase to regulatory and court delays as well as winter weather and challenges of dealing with COVID-19.

Enbridge president and chief executive Al Monaco, however, reported that the project is on track to deliver on cash flow by late 2021 as reported by Global News. Demand for Canadian heavy crude oil from U.S. Gulf Coast refineries is rising faster than demand for light oil, he said.

Even if Line 3 and 5 shut down, Enbridge’s dividends would be safe. The Motley Fool, a Canadian stock advisory service, reports that Enbridge’s dividends are supported by cash flow from existing projects. 

DeMain is pleased that costs of Line 3 are rising.

"When a foreign-owned company announces they have to spend more money on a project, you know you're winning," he said. "They may have money but they don't have the social license to support their pipeline projects"

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