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Enbridge Line 3: The threat of spillage is as real as its precedent

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Rocky Wagner
Several weeks ago MinnPost published an article to inform its readers about the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline (“Where the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project stands, and where it goes from here,”) but the article, while full of good information, left a lot out. MinnPost’s Line 3 piece reasonably skirts detailed discussion of the environmental implications of fossil fuel use to zoom in on the project itself, but it didn’t include some central facts I’d like to provide about the line’s history, its legal standing in regard to tribal rights, and facts surrounding its approval process.

On potential acute environmental impacts, tar sands crude oil spills, the article limits itself to this: “Environmentalists opposed to the route worry a spill could pollute the Mississippi River’s headwaters or other nearby lakes and waterways in the region.” While undeniably true, it’s a fairly bland statement. We are worried not because we are inclined to worry, but because the threat of spillage is as real as its precedent.

Residents of Argyle and Grand Rapids, Minnesota, might wonder why no mention is made of the fact that the two largest inland oil spills in U.S. history occurred here in Minnesota, or that both were resultant of failures in Enbridge pipes, or that pipe failures were both failures of the same pipe, or that this pipe was the Enbridge Line 3.

Enbridge is offering to protect us from itself

Along these lines, no one should get caught in Enbridge’s indirectly referenced position that this is about public safety. No one wants the existing Line 3 to spill, and Enbridge is offering to protect us from itself, and only in exchange for the go-ahead on a massively lucrative project. Enbridge is already legally responsible for ensuring safe pipeline operation. It should do this via line repairs, a true replacement pipeline, or shut it down. The public should not be held hostage over the need for repairs to give Enbridge a new line, with major new capacity.

Minnesota doesn’t even need this oil — per the state Department of Commerce (DOC). The DOC was the body tasked by Gov. Mark Dayton with this project’s Environmental Impact Statement, the detailed, several-hundred-page study of environmental, economic, and community impacts. The opinion of the DOC is that Enbridge hasn’t justified that a pipeline is needed.

In another branch of government, Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly, ruling on this project, is referenced in the original article as having proposed another route, but no mention is made of her opinion on Line 3’s current route. Judge O’Reilly concurred that the PUC should not approve Enbridge’s Line 3 plan, agreeing that the project’s costs outweighed the benefits.

Impossible to completely clean up

The newer tar sands crude is heavy and sinks. It’s impossible to completely clean up. The list of dilutenting chemicals that make it possible for the crude to flow through pipelines, and the company’s insurance policy itself, are both kept from the public as “trade secrets.” A major spill could devastate water supplies, including wild rice beds, a grain sacred to the Anishinaabe, flooding those with literally secret industrial chemicals. How much of the enormous cleanup Minnesota would be left footing the bill for is unknown.

Then there are First Nations treaty rights. This often overlooked point is significant, both morally and because this is potentially the strongest legal argument that could block the pipeline. The Anishinaabe have off-reservation treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands they ceded to the U.S. government – including the lands the new Line 3 would cross. Case law — Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians (1999) — supports the Anishinaabe position.

Space could have been allowed for a local or tribal counterpoint to the Enbridge statement claiming affected communities and tribes were “carefully consulted.”

Of 72,000 comments garnered by the Public Utilities Commission’s online request for public testimony, 68,000, or an overwhelming 94 percent, were opposed. Sierra Club, for the above reasons, stands with the majority of Minnesotans in opposition to the dangerous and unnecessary project, which remains on track for construction in the new year.

While it’s completely understandable for these final issues to be omitted from an impartial article about the status of a project’s approval and construction, any consideration of this pipeline by citizens should include knowledge of the actual economic harm done to Canada’s boom-and-bust tar sands communities, the criminal upstream effects of tar sands extraction on the public health in those extraction communities, and the urgent imperative to begin moving our society away from use of fossil fuels that the global community faces if we hope to avoid the target of our current trajectory: droughts, famines, larger wildfires, disappearing islands, disappearing species, decreased global access to potable water, and increasingly common extreme weather events.

Rocky Wagner is a member of the Beyond Oil and Tar Sands Committee of the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Scott Russell on 01/16/2019 - 11:23 am.

    Love the reframing that:”Enbridge is offering to protect us from itself.”

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/16/2019 - 12:14 pm.

    Transporting crude through the highways via thousands of tanker trucks is totally safer than sending it through a pipe.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 01/17/2019 - 03:53 pm.



    • Submitted by Edison Wagner on 01/17/2019 - 08:46 pm.

      If your comment is sarcastic, I’ve got to disagree with you on a couple points. First, as Richard Owens said, along with the article and the findings of the state via the Public Utilities Commission, we don’t need the oil. Second, ever if we did, transporting crude in tanker trucks carries a much lower environmental risk than a pipeline does. A large tanker truck will carry five to ten thousand gallons, and if it crashes it could spill them. in 1991, Enbridge dumped 1.7 million gallons of oil and chemicals onto the frozen Prarie River. Had it not been frozen, much of it would still be there, in the river, the soil, the groundwater, the wildlife, and the people.

    • Submitted by Edison Wagner on 01/17/2019 - 08:49 pm.

      If I’m missing your point, and you’re concerned with drivers, cyclists, wildlife, and pedestrians, you’re totally right. Trucks are dangerous. I would not advocate for having any more of them on the roads transporting oil if we killed this pipeline. A good grid to store and send our wind power around the state (which MN already leads the country in producing machinery and transportation systems for) would both boost our economy, preserve the habitability of our environment, and keep us all safer on the roads!

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/16/2019 - 12:35 pm.

    Mr. Wagner himself makes a persuasive public and environmental safety argument:

    “Residents of Argyle and Grand Rapids, Minnesota, might wonder why no mention is made of the fact that the two largest inland oil spills in U.S. history occurred here in Minnesota, or that both were resultant of failures in Enbridge pipes, or that pipe failures were both failures of the same pipe, or that this pipe was the Enbridge Line 3.”

    Clearly, the current line poses risks. I’d like to see some discussion of the relative cost effectiveness of Mr. Wagner’s repair/replace in situ/same capacity proposals and the impact of the closure of the current line.

    I’d also like to see pipeline operators directly billed for the cost of state inspections of their facilities, so that enforcement does not depend upon the Legislature’s decisions.

  4. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 01/16/2019 - 02:35 pm.

    Thank you for filling in the rest of the story. Minnesotans need to be FULLY informed when making a decision of this magnitude.

  5. Submitted by Michael Miles on 01/17/2019 - 09:42 am.

    Great article.

    As you stated, Minnesota does not need this pipeline. The Department of Commerce has filed a lawsuit against the PUC to stop it based upon that same conclusion.

    An even more profound statement is that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, in October, 2018 that we need to reduce CO2 pollution by 45% by 2030, and 100% by 2040 to prevent an unstoppable runaway climate and very possible human extinction. This means that by 2030 we need to reduce the number of oil pipelines and refineries by 45% and by 2040 almost all of them. Additionally, the most dirty of refineries, such as those refining bituminous tar should logically go first.

    I have to ask the bureaucrats, given this new conclusion of the cliff we are rapidly approaching: what will be your legacy regarding the approval of this dirty source of fossil fuel? Will you be remembered as a defender of humanity, or one of its executioners?

  6. Submitted by greg gibbs on 01/18/2019 - 11:34 am.

    To me, global warming is the most overarching issue – the background in which spills, wild rice destruction, water pollution and the abrogation of Treaty Rights reside. The tar sands in Canada, if fully exploited, will add .4 degrees C to global climate change alone. This line enables this.
    For governor Walz to ‘claim’ to understand the science of global warming, while approving this line, only shows that it is the capitalist oil companies even Democrats are still beholden to. You can’t straddle this issue.

  7. Submitted by Christy Dolph on 01/18/2019 - 01:40 pm.

    Thank you for laying this out. Each of these pieces are important for the public to know. The new Governor has continued to say he will ‘look to the data and science’ to decide his course of action on this issue. As you correctly lay out here, the preponderance of data and evidence clearly point to the need to decommission the existing pipeline asap. I hope Walz backs up his words with the appropriate action.

  8. Submitted by Julia Heimer on 01/18/2019 - 04:36 pm.

    Great article. In the past few weeks Walz announced to reconsider the DOC’s appeal and that the final decision would be his. We should encourage him to make the right decision to keep the appeal. We can call the governor’s line at 651-201-3400 and say something along the lines of “The Department of Commerce’s lawsuit against the Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline lawsuit must be allowed to proceed.” Also, for those of us using social media to spread the word.
    Keep it going!

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