Workers assemble the Line 3 pipeline.
Enbridge is continuing construction on its contentious Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota. Credit: Courtesy Enbridge

The first months of construction on Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline were relatively uneventful.

Cold weather and the COVID-19 pandemic limited protests across the 337-mile route in northern Minnesota, and the Canadian company quickly finished about 60 percent of its work on the project after starting in December.

After a short spring break on mainline construction required by Minnesota regulators, however, Enbridge is now entering a new phase of construction — and a new phase of protests. 

As the company restarted construction this week, opponents of the project geared up for a wave of larger demonstrations aimed at slowing or stopping the pipeline. A court decision on a key legal challenge to Line 3 is also expected in June, making the final stretch of construction a pivotal one for the future of Enbridge’s new pipeline.

Line 3 more than half built after winter

Enbridge broke ground on Line 3 in 2020 after six years of environmental and regulatory reviews on the project. It’s intended to replace an older pipeline that cuts a similar route through the northern part of the state before ending at a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin.

The existing 34-inch pipeline was built in the 1960s and is a corroding spill risk that operates at roughly half capacity. The new Line 3 will be a larger 36-inch pipeline capable of carrying 760,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The U.S. portion of the Line 3 project — which includes small new sections in North Dakota and Wisconsin — will cost about $4 billion in total.

Supporters say the new Line 3 will be safer than the old pipeline and safer than transporting oil by truck or train. Enbridge also promised thousands of construction jobs and other economic benefits to northern Minnesota. Opponents, including some tribes and environmental groups, say Enbridge shouldn’t build new fossil fuel infrastructure amid climate change. They also argue a new pipeline carries its own spill risks in areas where tribes retain rights to hunt and gather wild rice. The Line 3 route includes 22 river crossings in water-rich central Minnesota, including the headwaters area of the Mississippi River.

Minnesota regulators sided with Enbridge, and the company began construction in December.

There have been protests and arrests of activists along the pipeline route, but so far, no large-scale demonstrations have taken place. That’s in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some prominent organizers said they didn’t want mass gatherings in rural areas where the health care system was already strained. The frigid winter weather also likely kept some people away from the remote construction project.

Mike Fernandez, Enbridge senior vice president, said construction on Line 3 is about 60 percent done. A map provided by Enbridge shows the pipeline is in the ground across much of the northwest portion of the route through Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Red Lake and Polk Counties, as well as part of Clearwater County. The route is cleared the rest of the way, but only some portions in the central and eastern part of the route are completed.

Enbridge said it would create about 4,200 construction jobs and promised roughly half would be local workers. Company data showed only 33 percent of more than 4,600 workers in December were Minnesota residents.

Still, Kevin Pranis, spokesman for the Minnesota and North Dakota chapter of the Laborers International Union of North America, said Enbridge has lived up to its pledges. His union had some trouble recruiting workers early on during the pandemic and because of uncertainty surrounding whether the project would be built, but Pranis said they were given the opportunity to fill more jobs. Since then, Pranis said the proportion of local workers in his union has increased. The Enbridge data also doesn’t count workers who live nearby in Wisconsin or North Dakota but who the union considers local workers.

Pranis said their union has filled all the jobs they could on the project. In total LIUNA has had well over 1,000 workers on Line 3 and the pipeline has been “by far the biggest project” for local chapters in Duluth and the Iron Range as well as the statewide organization, Pranis said.

“It was a really big thing especially because it was a rough time up there with a lot of the setbacks in the mines,” Pranis said. “Our folks are very happy.”

Enbridge says it has provided $250 million in economic opportunity for tribal members as of March 31 and hired more than 500 tribal workers from Minnesota and other states during the course of the project up until April.

In April, Enbridge had to shut down most construction on Line 3. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency included a roughly 60-day spring pause as a permit condition primarily because wetlands are vulnerable to damage from erosion as the ground thaws, said agency spokesman Darin Broton.

Fernandez said last week that during the pause Enbridge had about 1,000 workers still building pumping stations. But the company is scaling back up to more than 4,000 workers and resumed construction Tuesday. Fernandez said Enbridge hopes to finish the pipeline by the fourth quarter of 2021.

Protests, legal decisions upcoming

Various groups opposed to the construction of Line 3 have come together to organize a weeklong event in Mahnomen starting June 5 called the Treaty People Gathering to demonstrate resistance to the pipeline and educate attendees about treaty rights. Organizers expect this will be the largest protest so far, with some 1,200 people confirmed to attend from around the country. A march is planned early Monday morning and various forms of resistance are planned through the week. 

Nancy Beaulieu, co-founder of Resilient Indigenous Sisters Resisting and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said she believes the pipeline should be approved by the tribe as a whole, not just elected officials. Leech Lake band leaders haven’t fought Line 3 because they want the old pipeline to be removed from their reservation. The new pipeline would not cross the Leech Lake reservation.

Our preamble states that we are to protect and preserve our natural resources for our people and our descendants,” Beaulieu said. “Article 13 and 14, The rights of members. That includes the free prior and informed consent and vote. So any time there’s a major decision affecting our tribes or our Minnesota tribe as a whole, it should be taken to a referendum vote.” 

Tara Houska, an attorney, founder of the anti-Line 3 activist group Giniw Collective and member of Couchiching First Nation, said she has been in touch with some members of President Joe Biden’s administration, including officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, and some of Biden’s climate advisors. She said she hopes the events of next week will result in a similar outcome to that of Keystone XL Pipeline, where the president revoked a permit for construction.

“There’s a lot of different folks in the administration who are aware of the issue and are recognizing that we are expecting action, not just words,” Houska said. And the concern seemed to be around not wanting to create a situation similar to the one that occurred during the Dakota Access pipeline resistance.

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Red Lake Band of Chippewa, which have opposed Line 3, have also sought to have Biden reverse federal permits for Line 3.

Houska and Beaulieu said they hope that the Mahnomen gathering sparks discussion on equitable climate solutions. Line 3 is not an outcome that “is in any way reflective of climate science or of the right of future generations to use the watershed,” Houska said. “The solution to an old leaking pipeline is not to build a brand new pipeline, it’s to transition away from fossil fuels and clean up the old mess.

Frank Bibeau, an attorney for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said that while White Earth and other tribes he’s talked to are not actively encouraging demonstrators they are also not actively preventing people from attending or taking an official stance.

Fernandez says the company is aware of the planned events slated to start the week after construction resumes and acknowledges the right for protesters to demonstrate.

“The watchword that we put out among our workers and with others, even as we talk to law enforcement is de-escalate. We do not want to incite anything. Instead, what we want to do is make sure that everybody is healthy and safe,” Fernandez said. 

Protests aren’t the only potential hurdle ahead for Enbridge.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals is expected to decide by June 21 whether Enbridge adequately proved there was demand for oil that would be transported by Line 3. Gov. Tim Walz’s Department of Commerce is challenging Enbridge’s Certificate of Need, which was granted by the five-member Public Utilities Commission. If the appeals court reverses the critical permit, that could lead to a stay on construction, even if Enbridge appeals to the state Supreme Court.

Other legal challenges brought by environmental groups and some tribes have also yet to be resolved in state and federal courts. For instance, Bibeau, the White Earth Band attorney, is suing in federal court, arguing in part the Army Corps of Engineers can’t issue a permit without tribal approval. A separate lawsuit against the MPCA over a water crossing permit is in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Fernandez said Enbridge has also talked to a lot of people at the White House and in federal agencies — and even reached out to Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry — but wouldn’t share details of any conversations.

Fernandez noted Enbridge started pursuing the Line 3 project at the behest of the Obama administration after 2010 oil spills in Michigan and Illinois and said he doesn’t believe Biden’s administration will try to reverse federal permits and stop Line 3 because they are being built under different circumstances. “I don’t know that they would say that publicly, but clearly they have opted not to engage,” Fernandez said.

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