A Biden Climate Test on the Banks of the Mississippi
Indigenous groups are demanding that the Line 3 pipeline go the way of the Keystone XL.
June 9, 2021
On Monday, a border-patrol helicopter stirred up clouds of dust in what seemed like an effort to drive away activists protesting against the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.Photograph by Evan Frost / Minnesota Public Radio / AP
I suppose that, if I’d thought about it, I could have figured out that there had to be a place where you could jump across the Mississippi. But I’d seen its majestic flow at so many points along its course (ripping through Minneapolis, regal in St. Louis, oceanic by Baton Rouge) that I’d never imagined it as a mere trickle. Now I have—I’ve waded through that trickle, in fact—and on an epic day in recent American Indigenous and environmental activism.
The backstory is that a big Canadian company, Enbridge, has been trying to expand and replace a pipeline, called Line 3, that runs across northern Minnesota. It would be about the same size as the now vanquished Keystone XL pipeline, and carry seven hundred and sixty thousand barrels of regular crude and tar-sands oil from Canada each day. (Enbridge characterizes the project as a “replacement” of the existing pipeline, but it will double the current capacity.) Most of the activists are Indigenous, led by groups such as Honor the Earth and the Giniw Collective, and many of those are led by remarkable women—Winona LaDuke, Tara Houska, and Dawn Goodwin, among many others. They have waged a stout campaign through a bitter Midwestern winter, but it has been hampered by the pandemic
. Now vaccines have freed others to join them, and Monday was the first big mobilization.
Two mobilizations, actually, which was easy because so many people came from across the country. At one, activists locked themselves to construction equipment at a pumping station, and a video shows a border-patrol helicopter hovering low overhead, in what seemed like an attempt to stir up clouds of dust to drive the protesters away. (Law-enforcement officials have denied this, claiming that the purpose of the helicopter flight was to broadcast a dispersal order to protesters.) By the end of the day, state police and sheriff’s officers, who, under the terms of the state permit, receive financial backing
from Enbridge, had arrested more than a hundred people.
I was at the other protest, about twenty miles away, where a county road crosses the Mississippi at a place so narrow that the river could be mistaken for a ditch. Tribal elders held water and pipe ceremonies, chanting as the hot sun rose against a clear blue sky and dragonflies by the hundreds circled overhead. Then, after listening to speeches by Jane Fonda and Rosanna Arquette (I spoke, too), the crowd moved toward the bridge. It was easy to see, perhaps a hundred yards away, across a marsh, a boardwalk that Enbridge had built over the wetland, in order to support the equipment that will be used to bore a tunnel for the pipeline under the river. I set off with a large group across squelching hummocks to reach that timbered road. In ten minutes, a few hundred people—many with lawyers’ phone numbers inked on their forearms, in case of arrest—had reached the boardwalk, and began setting up tents. I’m no master of terrain, but it struck me as a favorable redoubt—high ground in a swamp, with a freshwater route for resupply by canoe. As of Monday night, the descendants of the territory’s original inhabitants are occupying both banks of the nation’s great river.
They’re occupying the moral high ground, too. So far, much of the opposition to the pipeline has been based on treaty rights, and on the danger that oil spills pose at the dozens of places where the pipeline route crosses rivers, wild-rice waters, and wetlands. I sat on the boardwalk next to Tom Goldtooth, a veteran leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, as he explained the treaties that had been violated, and the sovereignty now being asserted. But these arguments alone—even, in 2021, as we theoretically reckon with America’s past—apparently weren’t enough to dissuade the state’s Democratic governor, Tim Walz. He was under pressure from the unions supplying most of the labor—Enbridge says more than five thousand jobs, five hundred of them held by Native Americans—to build the pipeline, a project that could be finished by year’s end, and almost all the jobs with it.
Now another argument, about climate change, is receiving renewed emphasis, because the Biden Administration has made it such a central part of its mandate. In 2015, the Obama Administration, with Joe Biden
as Vice-President, pulled the permits for Keystone XL, because it failed
the White House’s climate test. “America’s now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” President Obama said. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership. And that’s the biggest risk we face—not acting.”
So why would the Biden Administration let a pipeline of almost the same size, carrying tar-sands oil, proceed? Since 2015, the United States has joined (and rejoined) the Paris climate accord, promising to hold temperature increases to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible, and the world’s climate scientists have explained that this means cutting emissions forty-five per cent by 2030. And we’ve seen the hottest year, the worst wildfire
season in the American West, the biggest Atlantic storm season, and the highest temperature ever reliably recorded in America. Meanwhile, the price of solar power has dropped by half in the past decade. So, if the KXL failed the climate test six years ago, how could Line 3 pass it today? Enbridge told the Times
that it has “passed six years of regulatory and permitting review.” But this most basic climate question has never been answered: How does increasing the flow of tar-sands oil not make progress in cutting emissions more difficult?
President Biden has taken climate change more seriously than any of his predecessors, with a raft of executive orders designed to work real change across the government. On the supply side, climate experts give him credit for suspending drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for giving the final quietus to Keystone. But those were not hard decisions: in both cases, many years of activism had made them clear Democratic priorities. Yet, late last month, Biden allowed an Alaska oil-and-gas project approved by the Trump Administration—which would produce more than a hundred thousand barrels a day for thirty years—to proceed. (According to the Times
, members of the state’s congressional delegation raised the topic with Biden while at the White House for the signing of a bill allowing cruise ships to visit that state again.) That did not play well with the environmental groups that were a key part of his electoral coalition.
So Line 3 is a real test. If Biden is truly serious
that the climate is the most important priority of his Presidency, it makes no sense to give a permit to a pipeline that, decades from now, will still be disgorging huge quantities of particularly dirty crude. He doesn’t even need Senator Joe Manchin’s vote on this one—he can direct the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the water-crossing permits, which would stop the project. With the work more than half done, more than half the paychecks have been cashed—and, in any event, the unions should be willing to cut some slack for a President who is working hard to pass an enormous infrastructure-spending package. And the rest of the world is watching to see whether this President really intends to resume America’s leadership role on climate change.
On Monday, news came that CO2
levels measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, in Hawaii, had set a new monthly-average record of four hundred and nineteen parts per million, the highest levels in more than four million years. But, that same day, watching tribal elders conduct their ceremonies at the clear headwaters of the Mississippi, it was possible to imagine a different world in the making, one that pays heed to different people and different needs. For the moment, anyway, an older, deeper logic seemed to prevail.
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is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis
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