The Canadian Line 3 tar sands expansion pipeline in Minnesota is a catastrophe for the environment. Canadian oil company Enbridge recently completed a 542 km (337 mi) replacement of the original Line 3 pipeline. However, what is being described as a replacement does in fact also increase the pipeline’s capacity to transport oil by a staggering amount. The replacement takes a different route with a much larger diameter. This doubles the capacity of the existing pipeline to 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day. Line 3 is Enbridge’s largest project and one of the largest crude oil pipelines in the world. Indigenous groups and local activists have been fighting the pipeline for 7 years, ever since Enbridge published its plan. Opponents are against importing more tar sands oil. They also condemn the pipeline’s dangerous route through Minnesota’s sensitive rivers, lakes and tribal lands.
The Line 3 replacement is about expanding a dying industry. In the last years, Canada has been struggling to sell enough tar sands oil to make a profit. More pipelines, it was hoped, would help get more oil out to export markets in the US and Asia before the world’s appetite for tar sands dries up completely. The Line 3 replacement pipeline and Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada are part of this desperate rush to complete trade infrastructure before the market turns its back on tar sands.
Oil from the tar sands in Alberta is the most polluting oil in the world. Canadian tar sands are a form of crude bitumen that contains tar, clay and sand. Oil companies extract the bitumen via surface mining or underground extraction. Fossil giants like Shell and Exxon cut down boreal forests that are thousands of years old to mine directly underneath for the tar sands. This causes massive CO2 emissions. Companies also drain wetlands and destroy the natural course of rivers and streams. They leave behind open pits and thousands of square miles of barren landscape where nothing grows.
The pipeline replacement carves through untouched wetlands and tribal lands. It crosses 200 rivers and streams in northern Minnesota that are part of the Mississippi river headwaters. One single spill would threaten the drinking water of 18 million people. The Line 3 replacement traverses treaty land and will snake between the White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake reservations. The Anishinaabe people who live in those lands fish, hunt, and farm traditional wild rice. They have done so for thousands of years. A single pipeline spill would poison the water, kill the wildlife, and force the indigenous people to leave those lands.
The likelihood of a spill is almost certain. In the US, there have been 3,389 pipeline spills since 2012. Enbridge was itself responsible for the largest inland oil spill in US history. In 1991, a rupture in the Line 6b pipeline spilt more than 6.4 million liters (1.7 million gallons) of tar sands oil on a frozen river near the Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota. Had the river not been frozen, it would have poisoned the drinking water of 18 million people. In July 2010, the pipeline spilt again. Up to 3.7 million liters (1 million gallons) of oil was spilt into the Kalamazoo River.
Indigenous people are leading the fight against Line 3. In May 2021, over 300 national and local groups signed a joint letter to President Biden asking him to immediately halt construction. In June 2021, protestors engaged in days of action against the pipeline. Thousands of people took part. Police have arrested hundreds and shot at protesters with rubber bullets. Disturbingly, Enbridge paid the salaries of police officers providing security during construction as part of a deal with the state. This action followed nearly a decade of people marching, petitioning, speaking up in local government meetings and engaging politicians to keep the replacement of Line 3 at bay. After Enbridge announced the completion of the pipeline and the first oil fill in October, indigenous and environmental activists vowed to keep up the protest.
Opponents have taken the pipeline to court several times. In August, the White Earth Band filed a complaint in tribal court, claiming the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources violated constitutional and treaty rights by issuing water use permits for Line 3. The decision on this case is still pending.
Financial institutions are taking these protests seriously. Some are starting to divest. In April 2021, the New York State pension fund withdrew a USD 7 million stake from Alberta tar sands companies. Banks like Credit Agricole, Swedish SEB, Santander, Natixis and BNP Paribas have adopted policies that exclude financial support for tar sands projects. Insurers like Axa are also ending underwriting for tar sands. Any actor involved in this project contributes to tar sands surface mining, catastrophic levels of emissions and grave threats to native peoples in Minnesota.
Groups working on Line 3: Honor the Earth, 350.org, Stop Line 3, Stand.Earth