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Enbridge’s Line 3 project is becoming an issue in the 2020 presidential race

Jay Inslee is the second Democratic presidential candidate to take a stance on Enbridge’s Line 3, a $2.6 billion project that would travel 337 miles across Minnesota.

Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee
In a written statement sent to MinnPost, Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee said he opposed Line 3 because it would contribute to global warming and pose a threat to clean water and indigenous lands used for hunting, fishing and harvesting wild rice.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee has come out against construction of an oil pipeline proposed in northern Minnesota, elevating the project from a statewide issue to a national one in the race for the White House. 

The Washington governor is the second candidate to take a stance on Enbridge’s Line 3, a $2.6 billion project that would cross the Mississippi Headwaters and tribal land over its 337-mile path in Minnesota. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his opposition to the pipeline in January, a month before his presidential campaign began.

So far, the Line 3 project hasn’t drawn attention on the scale of the Keystone XL pipeline or the Dakota Access Pipeline, which sparked months of protests. But it has been a thorny political issue for DFLers in Minnesota, who are split over supporting the project. With Inslee’s announcement and Sanders’ opposition, Line 3 could become a litmus test of climate change policy and tribal solidarity in the Democratic primary. Several tribal governments have regularly challenged the project during the regulatory process.

On Line 3, Inslee and Sanders contrast with Minnesota’s own presidential hopeful, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has not taken a clear position for or against the project. When asked what Klobuchar’s stance is on the pipeline and about dissent from tribal governments, her state director, Ben Hill, said only that the DFLer supports environmental review of the project to determine if Line 3 should be built. (State regulators have so far approved the pipeline, although a court recently ordered more environmental study.) 

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In a written statement sent to MinnPost, Inslee said he opposed Line 3 because it would contribute to global warming and pose a threat to clean water and indigenous lands used for hunting, fishing and harvesting wild rice. Inslee has made stopping climate change the central tenet of his campaign for the presidency. Earlier this month, Inslee also said he opposed Enbridge’s Line 5 project in Michigan.

“To defeat the climate crisis, we must transition our economy off fossil fuels to an economy run on clean energy and that begins with rejecting new fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said.

Inslee (and Sanders) wade in 

Enbridge hopes to build Line 3 to replace an existing pipeline that was constructed in the 1960s. The old 34-inch pipeline is currently operating at roughly half capacity, and Enbridge warns it is corroding and not as safe as the 36-inch pipeline it hopes to build. The new Line 3 would carry about 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Edmonton, Alberta through north-Central Minnesota to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. 

The project has most permits it needs to begin construction, although an Environmental Impact Study approved unanimously by the state Public Utilities Commission was recently struck down by an appeals court because regulators did not study the effect a spill could have on the watershed of Lake Superior. Supporters of Line 3 paint the ruling as a temporary setback and the company says it hopes to start shipping oil in the second half of 2020.

Final Line 3 Replacement Project route
Final Line 3 Replacement Project route
Most Republicans and some DFLers — many in northern Minnesota — have backed Line 3, arguing it would be safer than leaving the existing pipeline in the ground and a better alternative to oil trains or other forms of fossil fuel transportation. The promise of jobs and an economic boost for rural communities and labor unions has also driven support for Enbridge among both political parties.

Opposition from environmental groups and tribes has been fierce, however. Both argue building long-term fossil fuel infrastructure amid escalating global temperatures is a mistake. The new pipeline would also cross tribal land and ceded territory on which tribes retain rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice.

Enbridge has reached an agreement with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to decommission the existing Line 3 on its reservation. The new pipeline would not cross Leech Lake land, but the Fond Du Lac Band of Ojibwe struck a deal to run oil through its reservation instead of through wild rice waters in ceded treaty territory. Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner also said tribal input led the company to change its route to avoid the watershed of the White Earth Reservation and the Sandy River, “a culturally significant location for the Ojibwe.”

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In a written statement, Kellner said Enbridge “takes the protection of Minnesota’s environment very seriously.” 

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission repeatedly confirmed the need for replacing Line 3 based how the project specifically benefits Minnesota,” Kellner said. “Minnesotans consume more than 12.8 million gallons of petroleum products every day and Minnesota relies on imports to meet its energy needs. Minnesota’s two refineries produce more than two-thirds of the state’s petroleum products and 80% of these products are refined from Canadian crude oil. ”

While Line 3 is an issue mostly decided by state government, Inslee has made stopping climate change and new fossil fuel infrastructure a top priority of his campaign for the presidency. It also could help him with environmentally-focused voters in a primary state with no clear front-runner. The first Minnesota poll of the 2020 cycle found Sen. Elizabeth Warren leading the state at 21 percent, but closely trailed by Sanders, Biden and Klobuchar.

Inslee has released detailed plans to address climate change, which include taxes on polluters and ending subsidies for oil companies and leases for fossil fuel production on federal land.

“Minnesota families deserve that we put their health and clean water above Enbridge Energy’s corporate profits,” Inslee said.

Sanders, who has backed the Green New Deal, filmed an anti-Line 3 video in January with Honor the Earth, a Native-led advocacy group that has fought the pipeline in court. 

Briana Blueitt, Sanders’ campaign spokeswoman, told MinnPost the world needs to “rapidly move to 100 percent clean, sustainable energy” and “stand united with our Native American brothers and sisters and stop the greed of the oil industry.” Blueitt said Sanders fought the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines as well.

“It is long overdue for the United States to honor Native American tribal treaty rights and sovereignty, moving away from a relationship of paternalism and control toward one of deference and support,” Blueitt said.

Klobuchar supports a ‘thorough’ review

Klobuchar has also co-sponsored the Green New Deal and called for the U.S. to re-enter the Paris climate agreement, but environmental advocates have characterized her global warming plans as less audacious. GreenPeace USA gave Klobuchar a C- for her climate change proposals, while Inslee got an A and Sanders received a B+.

Klobuchar opposed the Keystone XL pipeline and did not fully support or oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. In a written statement about Line 3, Hill, Klobuchar’s state director, said the senator “supports Governor Tim Walz’s focus on ensuring a thorough environmental and scientific review before the state determines if this project should move forward.”

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Walz recently re-filed a lawsuit first brought by former Gov. Mark Dayton challenging the need for the oil Line 3 would transport. Walz said he considers the challenge to be part of a tough environmental review process, but he has stopped short of opposing the pipeline. Hill emphasized Line 3 “has been a state issue,” although the project still needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Only one Minnesotan in Congress actively opposes Line 3: Rep. Ilhan Omar of the 5th District. All three Republicans in Minnesota’s congressional delegation have supported it, along with 7th District DFLer Collin Peterson.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Mike Segar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar supports an environmental review of the project to determine if Line 3 should be built, but contends it's a state issue.
While other DFLers in the delegation have voiced concern for the environment, the economy and Native communities, in statements to MinnPost, they did not say whether it should be built — over outcry from tribal governments.

Third District Rep. Dean Phillips’ office said he was still considering his stance on the pipeline. Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum’s office did not comment. And while 2nd District Rep. Angie Craig said Line 3 could reduce oil train traffic in her district, she said it “must meet the rigorous environmental standards that we have in Minnesota, utilizing the best available science in consultation with our Native communities.”

Molly Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tina Smith, said the DFLer “believes we need to continue with a rigorous process to make sure this project is safe for Minnesota.”

A challenge to other candidates 

Some environmental organizations cheered Inslee’s entry into the Line 3 debate. Margaret Levin, director of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, said her organization is “glad to see Governor Inslee join the fight against Enbridge’s dangerous, unnecessary proposed tar sands pipeline.”

“We urge all of Minnesota’s own elected officials to stand with us in the fight for a clean, just energy future for all Minnesotans,” Levin said.

Kevin Pranis, a spokesman for the Minnesota and North Dakota chapter of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), emphasized the leading role the state — not the federal government — plays in Line 3 regulation. “Minnesota has a really high bar in terms of showing need and addressing environmental concerns,” he said. “According to the [Public Utilities Commission], unanimously that bar was cleared. There isn’t much a federal role for it, not to say that people wouldn’t weigh in.” LiUNA expects to work on the pipeline.

Tribal governments that have publicly opposed Line 3 did not respond to a request for comment Monday, but after filing a legal challenge to Enbridge’s Certificate of Need in April, Joe Plumer, an attorney for the Red Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe, said that the project “would pose an unacceptable threat to the rights, health and way of life of the Ojibwe people.”

Inslee has wrestled with supporting fossil fuel projects in his own state at times. He once backed two natural gas plants as cleaner alternatives to oil during a transition to a clean energy grid. Yet he flipped in May, warning against new infrastructure for fossil fuels. Similarly, the projects had some labor support and tribal opposition.

In his statement to MinnPost, Inslee said the existing Line 3 should be decommissioned. Notably, he also said permitting for the new pipeline should be halted. In the case of the natural gas plants, the Democrat said he wouldn’t intervene in Washington’s regulatory process. 

Abby Loucks, a member of the advisory council for the construction-backed advocacy group Minnesotans for Line 3, called it “ironic that a governor of a state with five refineries and who has supported two natural gas plants in Washington is calling on Minnesota to get rid of an important energy supply source by claiming he wants to protect water and help families.”

“The best way to protect the environment and support families is to move Line 3 forward,” she said.

Still, Inslee ended with a challenge to Klobuchar and other White House rivals. “I want to thank the Tribal nations, activists and young people who have been tirelessly fighting to protect Minnesota from the dangerous Line 3 pipeline,” he said. “I encourage my fellow Democratic candidates to join me in opposition this pipeline.”

Update: This story has been updated to more precisely reflect the stances of tribal governments to Line 3.