The Shell River, named for the clams and mussels lining its riverbed, was only a few inches deep where it abutted the Central Minnesota encampment where Dawn Kier and her colleagues were living. From Kier’s perch in a lawn chair near the water on a recent late-summer evening, the river looked calm as it flowed past swaying cattails and thin stands of wild rice nearly ripe enough for harvest. But Kier had a keen knowledge of the complexity beneath the surface.
“There’s this whole water system underneath the riverbed,” Kier explained, as dusk enveloped the canopy of pine trees overhead. “And there are cracks and fissions where the water comes up to the surface.” She worried about what else might be seeping through those cracks, thanks to the construction of the Line 3 pipeline through the region by a Canadian oil company called Enbridge.
“Enbridge drills so far under the water that they risk hitting the aquifers,” Kier said, referring to a spill of drilling fluids known as a frac-out. Such frac-outs have released thousands of gallons of drilling fluids in the region this summer, which can disrupt ecosystems, including by suffocating mussels and fish.
Kier has watched water levels in the river, which eventually flows into the Mississippi, fall as much as six inches in a single day as, amid a historic drought, Enbridge drained billions of gallons of water from the tributary to lay pipes under the riverbed.
Kier, an Anishinaabe woman in her late forties and citizen of White Earth Nation, is living here to protect the region from further harm. (The Anishinaabe are a group of people indigenous to the Great Lakes region in the present-day United States and Canada.) She has been running an encampment here all summer, one of six indigenous-led camps for people who call themselves water protectors and have been trying to stop construction of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline.
Line 3, Enbridge’s largest ever project and part of North America’s longest pipeline, zigzags nearly 350 miles across Minnesota and through more than 200 bodies of water. Construction on the project, a rerouting and expansion of an old pipeline, began last December.
Water protectors had high hopes that after a campaign promising to fight climate change, President Joe Biden would revoke permits for the pipeline, but instead, his administration defended the Donald Trump administration’s approval in federal court.
Now the project is more than 90 percent complete — and if finished, it will carry nearly one million barrels of oil each day from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, on the shore of the eponymous Great Lake. That is enough to almost entirely replace the lost supply caused by Biden’s much-vaunted cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline in January.
Enbridge’s new pipeline is projected to emit the carbon dioxide equivalent of fifty new coal plants, greater than the sum of all other emissions in the state of Minnesota combined.
In a region that has been dependent on extractive economies like iron mining and logging since white settlers began colonizing the area in the nineteenth century, this is far from the first time the Anishinaabe people have had to protect themselves and the land from threat. Already this summer, commercial agriculture operations, which use local waterways for irrigation, and a drought caused by climate change had made lakes and rivers which usually grow wild rice inhospitable for the plant that is at the center of economic and spiritual life for the Anishinaabe people.
Enbridge’s success so far in pushing the project through — even as Democrats hold the governorship and half the legislature in Minnesota as well as governing majorities at the federal level — shows that the party is not yet willing to take on the fossil fuel industry. Despite dire warnings from scientists that most fossil fuels must be left in the ground to avert the worst impacts of climate change, the pipeline, which will transport the dirtiest fossil fuel, has the backing of politicians from both parties, environmental regulators, and local law enforcement.
Still, water protectors continue to mount a massive resistance — filing lawsuits, coordinating with environmental groups, pushing to elect supportive politicians, and orchestrating dozens of nonviolent direct actions. Since construction began last December, over 900 people have been arrested protesting Line 3. Now, more than two dozen congressional Democrats have joined the call to cancel the project, and earlier this month, several of the progressive House Democrats known as the Squad visited Minnesota to personally voice their opposition.
Such efforts are putting pressure on Biden and the Democratic Party to take the most consequential and needed step to tackle climate change: stopping new fossil fuel development.
But even if Line 3 becomes operable, water protectors intend to sustain what they’ve built for as long as it takes to turn the tide against Enbridge and the fossil fuel industry.
“You can live without oil,” said Kier, gesturing to the assemblage of tents and teepees around her, “but you can’t live without water.”
As Kier was talking, her ten-year-old son interrupted her, shrieking he’d been stung by a bee. “I’m dying!” he cried melodramatically.
“No you’re not, I promise,” said Kier, laughing, explaining that just like everything else around here, the insects are angry because they don’t have enough water.
“The bees are thirsty,” she said. “Everybody’s dying of thirst right now.”
Elsewhere at the encampment, water protectors cooked a dinner of wild rice and split pea soup in a makeshift outdoor kitchen under an awning of bright blue tarps. A painted wooden sign over their workspace asked, “If the wild rice and trees and water are gone, will you still love oil?”
On that particular evening, the encampment was sparsely populated, since most water protectors had taken the fight to other parts of the state. But according to Kier, during the biggest feasts this summer, more than 200 people gathered here.
The encampments along Line 3’s route through Minnesota resemble the wild rice camps traditionally set up by Anishinaabe people during periods of harvest. Many of the people staying there are veterans of the Standing Rock protest camps set up in North Dakota in 2016 to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline, where the term “water protector” was first adopted by the movement.
“I witnessed an awakening in the world of Indigenous sovereignty, and the need to stand with the land itself,” said Tara Houska, who spent six months at Standing Rock. After those protests, Houska, an attorney and former Native American affairs advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign, founded the Giniw Collective, an indigenous women- and two spirit-led resistance group, which has its own encampment along the pipeline route called Namewag.
While Line 3 and Standing Rock are “different territories and different struggles,” Houska said, “they’re connected through the protection of Indigenous land and pushing back against the climate crisis and trying to protect the places that are left.” One major difference is that while Dakota Access had a single river crossing, Line 3 crosses under twenty-two rivers, increasing the potential environmental impacts of a spill. Moreover, the tar sands oil that flows through Line 3 is more difficult to clean up than other crude oil, because it is denser than water and therefore sinks, making conventional cleanup methods unworkable.
The Giniw Collective engineered many of the nonviolent direct actions this summer, such as water protectors fastening themselves to construction equipment and forming human barricades across access roads. These activities led to hundreds of arrests, but didn’t receive the same level of mainstream media coverage as the Standing Rock protests, possibly in part because most news outlets haven’t been welcome at the Giniw Collective encampment. Giniw and other groups involved in the movement instead rely on their own coverage, livestreaming direct actions or frac-outs on social media.
Still, according to Houska, these actions helped the water protectors score access to officials. “We didn’t gain consultation with the Army Corps of Engineers until over 100 people had been arrested,” she said.
The encampments aren’t just barracks for water protectors; they’re an intentional glimpse into a fossil-free future. People might stay for only a couple of days or weeks or months, but everyone contributes to cooking, cleaning, and sustaining camp life. Visitors to the camps learn about treaty rights and decolonization, receive training in direct action protest, and connect with the water and land they are here to protect. The idea, said Houska, is to grow the movement beyond stopping this single project.
Kier, Houska, and their colleagues are fighting a pipeline that has been in the works for more than five years, winding its way through a complicated permitting process.
In 2016, President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice issued a consent decree requiring Enbridge to replace its old and corroding Line 3 pipeline, which had been in operation since 1968 and been responsible for multiple major leaks, including the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
But instead of replacing the old pipeline, Enbridge proposed a longer, wider pipeline that would transport twice as much oil along a different route. The company negotiated an agreement with landowners to leave the old line in the ground, saving $1.5 billion in cleanup costs. “In effect, the EPA is ‘punishing’ Enbridge for a devastating spill by requiring the company to build an entirely different pipeline that Enbridge has wanted for years,” argued a petition drive organized to revise the consent decree.
According to Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner, the new Line 3 “is not an expansion but a restoration of the pipeline’s original design capacity,” and its new route “reflects the request from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe that the pipeline be routed off of their reservation.” But the new route cut through Anishinaabe treaty land, where the rights to fish, hunt, and gather wild rice. And other tribes opposed the new route.
“As a sovereign nation, we are confounded that we are being forced to choose between two evils as both routes pass through our lands,” said Fond du Lac tribal council chairman Kevin Dupuis Sr at the time.
To keep other local communities supportive of the project, Enbridge spent millions on local sponsorships, community investments, and direct payments in cities and towns along the pipeline route that have long been at the mercy of the boom-and-bust cycles of the region’s extraction industries.
The spending included sponsoring a “Wild Rice Festival” in Deer River and a county fair in Bemidji, paying for an “upgrade to communications equipment” for the Alvarado Fire Department, buying new rescue equipment for the Hill City and Cohasset fire departments, and direct payments to the Cloquet and Aitkin city coffers to fund a bike trail extension and public park refurbishment, according to Enbridge’s website.
“Enbridge was able to invest a lot in communities ahead of time, and kind of seduce them into supporting the pipeline,” said state senator Mary Kunesh (DFL), who has been working to mobilize lawmakers against the pipeline.
Pipeline opponents had reason for hope when Minnesota voters elected Tim Walz as governor in 2018, since Walz, a Democrat, had tweeted during his campaign: “Any line that goes through treaty lands is a nonstarter for me.” But in mid-November 2020, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) issued the final state permits Enbridge needed to begin construction, Walz gave up his opposition to the project.
By that point, however, one other impediment to the pipeline had arisen: Biden’s presidential victory. Local tribes and environmental groups filed an appeal with the new administration to rescind Enbridge’s federal permits, since the Trump administration had granted those permits without conducting an environmental impact study on the project. “We all thought Biden was going to come in and axe this project,” said Kier at the Shell River camp.
Instead, in June, the Biden administration backed the pipeline’s construction in federal court.
In September, Biden’s press secretary told ABC news that the president would not revoke permits for the pipeline since it was under “active litigation,” although it’s not at all clear how that litigation could prevent Biden from cancelling the pipeline. The White House did not respond to the Daily Poster’s request for comment.
Early on a July morning this summer, a group of water protectors traveled to the Willow River near Lake Superior to try to prevent Enbridge from drilling and laying pipes under the water. As soon as they arrived, they realized something was wrong.
“There was [an Enbridge] boat parked on the bank of the river . . . that was sitting like it had been hastily left there,” recounted Shanai Matteson, one of the water protectors. Nearby, the river was bubbling, a patch of the riverbed was stained a yellow-orange color, and equipment by the water’s edge was labelled “spill kit.”
The group realized they were witnessing the aftermath of a frac-out.
The MPCA later confirmed the frac-out at the Willow River. While Enbridge and the MPCA claim the substances released during a frac-out are nontoxic, such as bentonite clay and xanthan gum, such spills are violations of the company’s drilling permits, since they threaten aquatic life and upset the hydrology of the river.
According to a 2000 paper published by an Enbridge environmental analyst and presented at the International Pipeline Conference, “The long-term effects of deposition drilling fluid in wetlands are yet unknown. However, there is evidence that the short-term effects of releasing drilling fluid into wetlands include temporary displacement of resident fauna, smothering of [bottom-dwelling] organisms and plant root systems, increased turbidity of water quality, and effects on water chemistry and wetland hydrology.”
After the Willow River frac-out, thirty-two state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers asked the MPCA to release information on all of the frac-outs that had occurred during construction and suspend Enbridge’s drilling permits “until the state is no longer experiencing drought conditions and until a thorough investigation can be completed by your agency so that the causes of these releases are fully understood and further releases can be avoided.”
On August 9, the MPCA responded, confirming that it had recorded twenty-eight frac-outs totaling at least 10,000 gallons of released drilling fluids, about half of which occurred on wetlands.
“I want to be clear that the MPCA’s 401 Water Quality Certification does not authorize any release of drilling fluid to any wetland, river or other surface water,” wrote MPCA commissioner Peter Tester. While the agency is conducting an investigation into the spills, it has not suspended the pipeline’s construction.
The high rate of frac-outs suggests Enbridge might not know much about the land where it is drilling, said Laura Triplett, a geology professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, who is publicly opposed to Line 3.
“They must have convinced themselves and convinced the MPCA that this was a reasonable and safe place to do horizontal drilling. But then it wasn’t. Either someone’s lying, or someone did a bad job.”
Triplett says there’s further evidence that Enbridge doesn’t know the landscape as well as it should: The company drastically underestimated the amount of water it would need to remove from wetlands to lay pipes.
Enbridge had initially received a permit from the state department of natural resources to remove 510 million gallons of water, but in June, the company modified its request to nearly 5 billion gallons. The request was approved by state officials without any investigation into why Enbridge had so grossly miscalculated the amount of water it needed to displace.
“The hydrogeologists who Enbridge hired, they claim to be some of the top in the state,” Triplett said. “If they’re wrong about the wetlands, they are wrong about the wetland impacts, and that means the permit should not have been issued.”
On September 17, Minnesota regulators ordered Enbridge to pay $3.3 million for illegally drilling in a protected wetland and breaching an aquifer, causing 24 million gallons of groundwater to leak. “Enbridge’s actions are a clear violation of state law, and also of the public trust,” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore told the Associated Press.
Water protectors say state agencies’ responses to the frac-outs and dewatering efforts suggest Enbridge has a cozy relationship with those charged with regulating the company, and they worry about what will happen if the pipeline is completed and there is an oil spill.
“We do know it’s going to spill,” said Kier at the Shell River camp, gesturing upriver to where pipes were laid a couple months ago, the sound of drills humming overhead for days. It’s a common refrain among water protectors that an oil spill is inevitable.
According to Kellner, the Enbridge spokesperson, “Replacing the existing Line 3 pipeline with one made of thicker steel, with more advanced coatings, will better protect Minnesota’s environment and people for generations to come.” She added that in 2020, Enbridge delivered one of the highest volumes of oil in its history with its best-ever safety record.
Still, between 2002 and 2018, Enbridge reported 307 spills in its pipeline network, an average of one spill every twenty days, according to a report from Greenpeace. In 2010, one of those incidents became one of the largest inland oil spills in US history when it released more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan. The river ran black, and Enbridge didn’t notice the spill for seventeen hours, a response that Michigan’s then governor Jennifer Granholm, who is now Biden’s energy secretary, called “anemic” and “wholly inadequate.”
If Line 3 becomes operable, Enbridge will be responsible for self-reporting spills to regulators. Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources found that Enbridge had failed to report a spill along its Line 13 pipeline for over a year, despite having knowledge of the accident.
In addition to spills, there is also the environmental impact of the oil that will be running through Line 3. Enbridge has repeatedly argued that pipelines don’t lead to carbon emissions, and that the oil it is designed to transport will reach the market, whether the new Line 3 is built or not. “Forcing the transport of essential energy off of pipelines only moves it to more carbon-intense alternatives — via ship, truck, and most notably rail,” said Kellner, the Enbridge spokesperson.
But the Alberta tar sands have had to slow down oil production in recent years due to a lack of pipeline infrastructure connecting the tar sands to the United States. Climate scientists have found that because of this bottleneck effect, pipelines can be a massive source of emissions, since they enable a greater transfer and therefore consumption of oil.
A Minnesota state study using the federal government’s methodology for calculating the social cost of carbon consumption found that Line 3’s climate damages are estimated at up to $287 billion over a thirty-year lifetime.
This summer, the water protectors witnessed the consequences of burning those fossil fuels on the landscape of northern Minnesota. “We fought most of this project under smoky skies and a red sun from wildfires, and empty rivers because of a drought,” said Houska of the Giniw Collective. “It’s a situation where we’re being confronted very blatantly by the decision to engage in extractivism as the only way of life.”
“There is a crime underway,” said Winona LaDuke as she sat in a large armchair in her home on the White Earth Reservation, stroking a pointy-eared dog wriggling in her lap on a recent August day. LaDuke is the founder of the indigenous environmental justice organization Honor the Earth and a leader of the Line 3 resistance movement. She’s long been involved in national politics and environmental movements, including the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. But this fight is in her backyard.
Just down the road is her hemp farm, powered only by humans and horses — the manifestation of LaDuke’s belief that “fossil fuel addiction,” as she calls it, isn’t the only way to live.
Enbridge, meanwhile, has parched the local land dry and its pipeline threatens to pollute the nearby Shell Lake, where she has been harvesting wild rice for much of her life.
“No one is prosecuting the crime, we can see that,” she continued. “We are getting charged trying to stop the crime.”
Earlier this summer, LaDuke was arrested “for the sole reason that I believe that the Shell River, like the other rivers of northern Minnesota, and like our Akiing [land] itself, should be protected, not exploited to sickness and death,” as she wrote in a dispatch from the Wadena County Jail. After three nights in jail, she was released with misdemeanor charges.
The problem, said LaDuke, is that Enbridge appears to have local law enforcement in its pocket — and she isn’t the only one who believes this. After they discovered the Willow River frac-out, Matteson and other water protectors left to gather equipment to collect water samples. On their way back, Matteson says they were stopped three times by law enforcement.
“Their primary concern is to come out and police people who might take water samples or observe the cleanup process, rather than actually make sure that the water gets tested and that the agencies get notified,” said Matteson.
Enbridge has made direct payments to local police departments, which have coordinated and shared intelligence on water protectors with the company, according to reporting by the Intercept. Enbridge and police officials have claimed the payments are reimbursements for expenses incurred for guarding pipeline construction.
LaDuke doesn’t buy it. “It’s bad enough if you’ve got a police state that’s owned by your state,” she said. “But a police state owned by Canadian multinationals? Really? You just do that?”
Police aren’t the only local authorities being paid by Enbridge.
The route permit issued by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the agency which oversees permitting for energy infrastructure projects, required Enbridge to hire and pay a team of “independent environmental monitors” to monitor construction and watch for permit violations.
While the monitors report to state agencies, they are there acting in lieu of agency officials, meaning that construction is largely supervised by people who were selected and paid by Enbridge.
None of those monitors were on the ground at the Willow River frac-out, according to video footage taken by water protectors.
“This is way bigger than I planned,” Joe Morales told the crowd of over a hundred people that gathered around him in a large circle under the blazing Minneapolis sun. Morales had helped the group come together to take part in the Treaty People Walk for Water, which began at the headwaters of the Mississippi River a couple weeks before, and ended later that day on August 25, across the river at the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul.
The walk, which had taken water protectors past fields of corn, small farmhouses, and Lutheran churches, was organized in the tradition of American Indian Movement protest walks of the twentieth century, Morales had explained earlier. This new effort, he said, was both a prayer walk and a declaration of treaty rights.
“Article 6 of the Constitution states that treaties are the supreme law of the land, and that no state or local government can supersede that,” Morales explained. “In those treaties, the rights to fish, hunt, gather, and travel are guaranteed. As such, we’re walking on those rights.”
At the beginning, only a half-dozen water protectors had accompanied Morales. But as the 256-mile walk gained attention and crept closer to the Twin Cities, more people had joined. Now, looking out over the packed crowd, Morales teared up as he thanked those who had been with him since day one.
“I’m sorry if the food was sometimes a little short. I’m sorry if the water wasn’t cold enough. But you showed up and you stayed,” Morales said. He paused, wiping tears from his eyes, before addressing the walkers who had joined for the final day. “I’m going to ask you not to abandon us. No matter what happens. And we will stop it. I believe that in my heart. We have to stop it.”
The walkers ended their journey at the state capitol building on a Wednesday afternoon, marching hundreds strong, fists raised in the air, in silent prayer. Over a dozen painted teepees set up on the neatly trimmed lawn stood in stark contrast to the imposing capitol building, surrounded by barricades and state police officers brought in to respond to the protest.
The next day, as water protectors continued to occupy the capitol lawn, Gov. Walz was asked by a caller on Minnesota Public Radio about his ongoing support for Line 3. “One pipeline is not going to be where we win this battle on climate change,” he replied, adding that the pipeline had survived the scrutiny of the regulatory process and multiple legal challenges.
Houska from the Giniw Collective disagreed. “Well, this one pipeline is a ten-percent expansion of the tar sands industry,” she said. “So it’s certainly not going to help the climate crisis.”
Protest movements like this one, however, might help stop the climate crisis. A recent report by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International found that indigenous-led resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure has, over the past decade, “stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions.”
Even if Line 3 is completed, this resistance movement is prepared for what’s next. As LaDuke put it, “I’m going to be fighting Enbridge for the next 20 years.” One element of that fight is a novel legal framework, now gaining momentum, that LaDuke believes could play a key role in the fight.
Last month, the White Earth Nation filed a lawsuit in tribal court, arguing that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources permits that allowed Enbridge to remove billions of gallons of water from the state’s wetlands put the livelihood of manoomin, or wild rice, at risk. The sacred plant, which first led the Anishinaabe people to the region centuries ago, is a food staple and key commodity, access to which is protected by treaty rights across the region.
This lawsuit is the first rights-of-nature case to be filed in tribal court, and a federal judge has blocked the Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to have the case thrown out. (The department is appealing that decision.)
Biden, meanwhile, has maintained his silence on the pipeline, even as he traveled along the East Coast surveying the damage from Hurricane Ida, a climate change-fueled storm that claimed at least sixty lives in the U.S and up to an estimated $80 billion in damages. “The nation and the world are in peril,” the president told reporters.
In northern Minnesota, that peril has arrived, under Biden’s watch.
“They are reaching into the last beautiful places, they are coming for the places that we, as Indigenous people have been displaced to, or removed to, or what we were able to save during colonization,” concluded Houska. “They are acting like we are sacrifice zones, like it’s not real, it doesn’t matter. That’s never been the case. We are defending the sacred, we’re defending our own land.”