Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Tar sands pipeline: a litmus test of whether Minnesota is serious about climate change

REUTERS/Chris Helgren
The proposed Enbridge pipeline project is a litmus test of whether Minnesota is serious about climate change.

Minnesota has taken significant steps to develop its renewable energy resources. Beginning more than 20 years ago, the state has promoted energy efficiency, wind, and solar power, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs and cleaning the environment. The state is committed, by law, to sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Sen. John Marty

The proposed Enbridge pipeline project would be a big step in the opposite direction. It is a litmus test of whether Minnesota is serious about climate change. Before explaining why, it is important to be clear on the urgency of the issue. A recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences said that there is a 1-in-20 chance that human-caused climate change will have an impact that is “beyond catastrophic” by the end of the century, threatening the very survival of our descendants.

Ignoring the risk of climate change caused by human greenhouse gas emissions is gambling with the lives of young Minnesotans and all future generations.

In that context, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will make a formal decision on whether to allow Enbridge to construct its proposed multibillion-dollar Line 3 Replacement Pipeline project. The pipeline, which would be used to transport heavy crude oil extracted from tar sands in Canada, would travel across lake country in northern Minnesota.

Commerce: Pipeline isn’t needed

The Department of Commerce’s analysis of the proposal concluded that the pipeline is not needed for our energy needs and stated that “Minnesota would be better off if Enbridge proposed to cease operations of the existing Line 3, without any new pipeline being built.”

Certainly, the economy will continue to use fossil fuels as we transition to a clean energy future. However, this pipeline project will make our climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions even worse than they already are, working against the greenhouse gas reduction goals in law. It facilitates the extraction of additional tar sands oil — the dirtiest of fuels, with a greenhouse gas impact as much as 37 percent higher than conventional oil. We need to minimize greenhouse gas emissions as we phase out the use of fossil fuels over the next few decades, not encourage the use of the most harmful of those fuels.

Without this pipeline, the economics of tar sands extraction — already costly — simply don’t make sense, and the oil and gas companies will leave the tar sands in the ground. Expanding rail capacity for transporting tar sands is too expensive and cannot be sustained.

Many of the people most affected by the proposed pipeline are native people, whose families have lived here for hundreds of years or longer. For them, the impact of the pipeline matters not only while it is under construction and while it is transporting tar sands, but also 100 years from now, decades after it is no longer in use. The environmental review stated that “disproportionate and adverse impacts would occur to American Indian populations” regardless of the route chosen.

Old pipeline to be abandoned

To add insult to injury, the Enbridge proposal would abandon the old pipeline after draining the oil and taking other steps to reduce harm. Landowners who were forced to host the existing pipeline deserve the chance to determine what happens to their property. Rather than respecting the interests of local landowners, Enbridge wants to decide this question based solely on its corporate interests.

Leaving an aging pipeline in place is like buying a new car and leaving the old, rusting car in the backyard, slowly dripping remnants of toxic fluids into the ground. Fluids do continue to leak out even if the tanks have been drained.

In this case the analogy is even worse. It is like leaving your rusting car in somebody else’s backyard, without their consent, to pollute their soil and water.

In addition to the disproportionate impact on native people and those who own land crossed by the pipeline, the children, grandchildren, and future generations of all Minnesotans will be harmed by the climate impacts.

Not a close call

Regulatory decisions like this one before the PUC are often a balancing act. Much of the political pressure in support of the project comes from the need for jobs like those that would construct the massive pipeline. However, the decision in this case is not a close call.

Although those jobs do not justify building a pipeline that fails to meet the legal criteria for granting approval, we must take seriously the need to create jobs for the building trades. In that regard, removing the existing pipeline would create a significant portion of the jobs that would have been created if the proposed pipeline were built.

To restate the urgency of the climate issue, the new report published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated a 1-in-20 chance that global temperatures could rise by 5° Celsius by the end of the century — far worse than the 2° rise that the Paris Climate Accords committed to preventing. Worse even than the catastrophic impacts that the report said a 3° rise would trigger. The report described a 5° increase as “beyond catastrophic” because it threatens the very existence of humanity.

One of the scientists involved said, “To put [it] in perspective, how many of us would choose to buckle our grandchildren to an airplane seat if we knew there was as much as a 1-in-20 chance of the plane crashing?”

With that sobering image in mind, the Enbridge pipeline decision is truly a litmus test of whether Minnesota is serious about addressing climate change.

For the sake of the children of today and tomorrow, we dare not fail this test.

John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is a state senator. He first published this article in his newsletter, “To the Point!” which is published by the Apple Pie AllianceA copy of Marty’s written testimony to the PUC is available here.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by richard owens on 11/14/2017 - 10:09 am.

    Tar sands should be left where they are.

    The land is completely destroyed for the plants and animals that have thrived in that environment for a thousand years. The “jobs” excuse being used by the sulfide mining consortium to threaten our beloved Boundary Waters does not even apply.

    Tar sands mining retention ponds require repetitive, loud, blaring horns to stop waterfowl from simply landing in the filth and dying.

    Look at some pictures of what is left…

    From pristine to poisonous for a little money and a mess forever.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/14/2017 - 12:19 pm.

    It may make you feel good

    but blocking this pipeline won’t keep the oil in the ground. The way to do that is to reduce consumption of the product it carries.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 11/14/2017 - 01:36 pm.

      Please look at the pictures.

      We have oil and gas in many places now due to fracking.

      Some places should not be disturbed. The bitumen spills are the worst of all oil spills.

      It has NOTHING to do with “feeling good”. (I took that as an insult.)

      The destruction being done in this case is for a product that is not needed.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/14/2017 - 02:14 pm.

    Environmental costs

    The U.S. Government has allowed pipelines transporting tar sands into the US several huge loopholes, one of which is excluding environmental impacts of the tar sands mining in Alberta. It might well be asked whether the environmental impacts of tar sands mining have any impacts since environmental impacts don’t respect arbitrary boundaries of nations. We know that large numbers of migratory fowl have died on landing in the toxic ponds surrounding these operations. Tar sands mining has had a significant environmental impact on the destruction of arboreal forests in Alberta, which are no less important than the rain forests in converting CO2 to O2. None of the environmental impacts statements have so far addressed the overall impacts of each pipeline and tar sands mining operation it serves upon CO2 emissions. They were ignored because publishing this information would make the environmental costs of these mining operations and these pipelines far greater than their benefits.

    Another loophole that ought to be closed and redone is allowing the major oil companies, like Exxon, to count their tar sands holdings as “proven reserves of oil.” This was disallowed until Exxon lobbied an oil-friendly Bush administration to change the rules to allow tar sands to be counted as proven reserves.

    This country does not need another oil or tar sands pipeline. It needs to start acting seriously to wean us off of our fossil fuel dependence and into the 21st century of renewable energy.

  4. Submitted by Michelle Shaw on 11/14/2017 - 05:23 pm.

    No New Jobs

    Having been at the hearing this morning where Enbridge’s line 3 project manager was testifying, he said that there would be between 0 and 20 new permanent jobs created by this pipeline. How is that enough to even consider this project? The laborers they will use during the 6 months or so of construction need to be skilled pipeline builders. How many Minnesotans have that kind of training and are just sitting around waiting for the chance to build a pipeline? Don’t be fooled. These jobs are not for Minnesotans.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/14/2017 - 09:48 pm.

    It would be interesting to see

    what the folks that say that the oil isn’t needed would say if the pipeline is built, and the oil running through it was actually purchased. Maybe the companies are wrong and after spending hundreds of millions of dollars nobody buys a drop of their oil. Think any heads would roll? The best part is that the new pipeline would be drained and sealed after hundreds of workers were paid a good wage to build it, and then the environment would be safe because no oil was being used nor could it leak since there wouldn’t be any in the pipes.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/14/2017 - 10:42 pm.

    “The Department of Commerce’s analysis of the proposal concluded that the pipeline is not needed for our energy needs…” Shouldn’t we leave it up to the market to determine what our energy needs are? By all means, tell them to remove the old line but otherwise, let them decide…

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 11/15/2017 - 03:23 pm.

    The Green energy boondoggle

    has cost Minnesota billions. Despite pouring millions into subsidizing green energy, the industry can not make a difference cost of electricity, it is not economically feasible. Plain and simple, coal and natural gas cost less to produce energy. Contrary to what the Greenies think, there is clean coal and gas technology.
    The statements that the tar sands area is ruined forever is also bunk. They said the same things about the iron ore pits and dumps up here on the Range 50 years ago. I now grouse hunt in those areas and you can’t tell the ore dumps from the slight hills we have up here.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/15/2017 - 09:02 pm.

    Pipeline not needed

    The International Energy Agency predicts that “The United States will be the undisputed leader of oil and gas markets for decades to come”. And yet, if the pipeline is built, nobody will need the oil. Who to believe?

Leave a Reply