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Moving beyond Standing Rock: Twin Cities activists gear up for future fights, in and out of court

In Minnesota, environmental and Native activists are gearing up for another fight against the proposed Line 3 replacement project.

A Minneapolis fundraiser, hosted by Honor the Earth on Feb. 18, collected donations to help the nearly 800 people facing charges for their participation in the Standing Rock demonstrations.
MinnPost photo by Kristoffer Tigue

Last week, Eryn Wise found herself joining hundreds of protesters in Suwanee County, Florida to demonstrate against the construction of the Sabal Trail Pipeline. “There are like four or five camps down here in Florida,” Wise said. “A lot of them were in Standing Rock.”

Wise, a Minneapolis resident and Native American activist for Honor the Earth, said Sabal is just one of many new fights growing out of the momentum created at the Standing Rock demonstrations in North Dakota, where tens of thousands gathered to stop the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline, while halted under the Obama administration back in December, has gained new traction under Trump’s presidency at a time when many protesters have left the camps or were forcefully evicted.

But Wise said the movement won’t end at Standing Rock, even if the pipeline gets completed, which looks likely to happen soon. Instead, the North Dakota protests invigorated a sprawling network of activists committed to fighting oil and natural gas pipelines across the country.

Over the last two months, dozens of protests have sprung up in places like New Mexico, Texas, Alabama and Hawaii, where pipeline proposals or construction are taking place. And in Minnesota, environmental and Native activists are gearing up for another fight against the proposed Line 3 replacement project, which would build a new oil pipeline corridor to replace the 50-year-old, 1,031-mile oil pipeline between Alberta, Canada and Minnesota, as well as the expansion of another trans-U.S.-Canada pipeline called the Alberta Clipper.

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“I think it’s important for people to realize it was never just Standing Rock,” Wise said. “Standing Rock just happened to be the catalyst.”

Minnesota pipeline fights continue

Last December, protesters packed a meeting regarding the proposal of the Line 3 replacement in northern Minnesota. The meeting was expected to attract a handful of landowners but instead was met by dozens of activists. Enbridge, who owns the old Line 3, adjourned the meeting early.

It’s not Enbridge’s first encounter with protesters in Minnesota. Earlier that fall, Enbridge announced they would be pulling the plug on their proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which was due in part to pressure from activists.

Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State is hosting a public comment meeting in Bemidji, this time aimed at discussing the company’s Line 67 expansion, also known as the Alberta Clipper. Activists are planning to pack that meeting, too.

“We have plenty of folks in Bemidji who are really passionate about it. There’s people in Duluth who are planning to travel over. There will be folks in the Twin Cities who are coming up,” said Andy Pearson, the Midwest tar sands coordinator for local environmental advocacy group MN350, which — along with other advocacy groups — has arranged buses to transport people from places like the Twin Cities and Duluth to attend the meeting.

Line 67 already transports 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to statements made by Enbridge, but because the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canada border, it needs a presidential permit for three miles where the line crosses the international border. Currently, Enbridge has bypassed that crossing by using three miles of Line 3 before diverting that oil back onto Line 67, but the company wants to get the Clipper officially permitted in order to expand its operations.

An environmental impact statement is expected to be completed on Line 3 later this spring. Activists are already gearing up for a fight. “I think the thing we’ve learned from Dakota Access is that this is not a movement that’s going away,” Pearson said. “Expect much more as the months roll out here, including … potential encampments.”

Playing defense

Many of those who participated in the Standing Rock demonstrations, the movement has shifted. “We are heavily engaged in trying to fundraise to make sure we have legal representation for all the people who have been arrested in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Honor the Earth National Campaigns Director Tara Houska.

North Dakota’s Morton County’s Sherriff’s Department is currently processing 761 arrests involving people who participated in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, including more than 20 cases involving Minnesota residents. Charges range from misdemeanors like inciting a riot, criminal trespassing and obstruction of government function, to felonies like reckless endangerment.

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So far, Houska said, national fundraising efforts have raised about $3 million, and multiple legal collectives have already begun implementing those funds to pay bonds, acquire legal representation and pay for other associated fees such as travel expenses — many of those facing charges live outside North Dakota and must return to the state for their trial.

But Houska said even with $3 million, it’s not enough to provide adequate legal representation for so many people. North Dakota doesn’t have enough public defenders to take on that many trials, she said, and those they’ve been able to hire simply have too many cases already.

Maxine Herr, a spokesperson for the Morton County Sherriff’s Office, admitted that the county wasn’t initially equipped to handle so many cases, and they expect it’ll likely take a couple years to get that many processed. But to help speed things up, Herr said, the county brought back some retired judges, and many employees are working “long hours.”

But Houska said even with everyone’s efforts, it’s still not enough to adequately handle this high of a caseload — especially if most of the defendants go to trial. “They’re guaranteed a jury of their peers,” she said. “Morton County has to accommodate.”

Divestment campaigns

The Standing Rock demonstrations have also spurred several cities to divest money from banks — including Wells Fargo, Citibank and Chase — involved in funding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Earlier this month, Seattle’s City Council voted to not renew their contract with Wells Fargo, a move that will pull more than $3 billion annually from the bank. And several other cities, including Minneapolis, may follow suit. Back in December, the Minneapolis City Council asked its staff to explore ways for the city to stop doing business with banks who are funding pipeline projects, like Wells Fargo.

“It’s critical that people realize that it’s their money that’s funding these projects,” Honor the Earth’s Houska said. “If people don’t like it, they can pull out their money. It’s the bottom line that matters.” 

Correction: An earlier version of the story mistakenly stated that Tuesday’s meeting on the Line 67 expansion was being hosted by Enbridge and the U.S. State Department. Enbridge had no involvement in arranging the meeting. We regret the error.