Ecosystem under threat after 2,500 barrels of crude oil leak from Santa Barbara pipeline.
Park Rapids, United States – In central Minnesota, known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, it is difficult to travel 50 kilometres without crossing an isthmus between two glistening bodies of water.
This water-dotted landscape is now at the crux of a dispute regarding Canadian company Enbridge Energy’s plans to expand its oil pipeline system in Minnesota.
Coalitions of community members, landowners, environmental activists, and indigenous groups have intervened in the state’s pipeline approval process, attempting to block or reroute a new pipeline corridor that Enbridge is proposing.
Protesters notched a significant victory last month when an appeals court reversed and remanded a partial authorisation granted to the company in July by the Public Utilities Commission of Minnesota (MPUC).
The court found that a comprehensive Environmental Impact Study, which Enbridge has resisted, must be completed before moving forward.
The scope of Enbridge Energy’s plans are comparable to those of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which has sparked a major controversy in the US. Enbridge has so far succeeded in avoiding such a widespread backlash, but the recent appeals case – and the movement behind it – are new barriers to Enbridge’s plans.
Fifty kilometres north of Park Rapids, the headwaters of the Mississippi River flow gently out of Lake Itasca. This environmental heirloom was what first motivated Richard Smith to co-found Friends of the Headwaters, the environmentalist group that filed the recently granted appeal.
“Originally we were Save the Mississippi,” said Smith.
“We changed our name to Friends of the Headwaters, because it wasn’t just about the Mississippi headwaters. Really, where this pipeline is proposed to go traverses the three main watersheds of North America: Lake Superior, Hudson Bay, and the Mississippi.”
In 2013, Enbridge announced plans for the new $2.6bn Sandpiper Pipeline. It would carry 225,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to an existing energy terminal in Clearbrook, Minnesota, and pump an additional 375,000 bpd on to the town of Superior, Wisconsin.
Then this year, mired in resistance to their state application for Sandpiper, the company filed for permission to build another much larger pipeline along the same corridor.
The Line 3 Replacement project would take the place of an existing pipeline that runs from the Canadian province of Alberta to Superior. This $7.5bn project, Enbridge’s largest to date, would nearly double the line’s capacity, to carry 760,000 bpd of crude oil from the Alberta tar sands.
Together, the Sandpiper and Line 3 pipelines would exceed the 830,000 bpd that the Keystone XL pipeline is intended to carry.
As proposed, the Sandpiper Pipeline, officially owned by Enbridge subsidiary North Dakota Pipeline Company, would run within seven kilometres of the Mississippi headwaters, and snake under many lakes and tributaries, as well as the Mississippi River itself.
It would also traverse a network of lakes where wild rice naturally grows. The crop is a traditional staple harvest of local Native American tribes.
The Line 3 Replacement would meet the Sandpiper corridor in Clearbrook, Minnesota, and follow it to Superior.
“Enbridge’s preferred Sandpiper route provides the best balance for Minnesota, taking into account impacts to both people and the environment,” said Enbridge in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera. “It traverses a less populated region of Minnesota, [and] avoids federal lands such as the Chippewa National Forest.”
But opposition groups claim Enbridge is misrepresenting the impact of the proposed pipeline.
While the counties have low population densities, they have among the highest densities of surface water and wetlands in the state. Enbridge’s preferred route is simply too risky, critics say.
“This is really about all the pristine lake country all the way across Minnesota, and including the lake country in northern Wisconsin, plus Lake Superior,” Smith told Al Jazeera. “We have to protect this. There are places in the world where fresh water is more precious than oil.”
However, Friends of the Headwaters is not opposed to all pipeline construction, and has proposed several alternate routes along which the Sandpiper Pipeline could follow existing corridors and avoid sensitive lake country.
Enbridge and pipeline supporters claim Sandpiper will be an economic boost to communities along the route.
“We’re a poor county,” said Hubbard county regional economic commissioner David Collins.
“If you consider the pipelines, the improvement to the electrical grid in the area – with the addition of sub-stations, increased voltage capacity, power lines – that’s excellent infrastructure for our county.”
This, said Collins, is worth the environmental risks associated with the pipeline.
Enbridge is already a major taxpayer in a number of Minnesota counties, and the company estimates the Sandpiper Pipeline project would generate an additional $25mn in annual property taxes.
The company also promised that Sandpiper will create 1,500 jobs during its construction.
According to Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little, however, only half of these positions are guaranteed to be filled with local union workers, and just 22 of the jobs will be permanent positions that will remain after the initial construction is completed.
Bob Scribner, a retiree of the machine industry living in Hubbard County, said this is a poor tradeoff for Minnesotans.
“All it takes is one leak,” he told Al Jazeera. “You look at the number of people that are employed here in tourism… If the pipeline was to break, those 22 jobs would be very, very small compared to the amount of pollution that would go into the water system. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Tourism is an important industry for the state. In central and northern Minnesota, spending on leisure and hospitality came to $2.4bn in 2013, and 54,120 people were employed in the industry, according to data from Minnesota’s tourism office.
Enbridge said it has a 99 percent safety record on its existing pipelines, in line with the industry-wide 99.99-percent safety record claimed by the Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL), an organisation of liquid pipeline owners and operators in the US.
However, the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data indicate from 2005-14, an average of 170 incidents that met reporting requirements along onshore crude pipelines occurred annually, and an average of 45,295 barrels, or 7.2 million litres, of crude oil was spilled from such pipelines each year.
Groups opposed to the pipeline argue such incidents pose major environmental threats, and are quick to point out that Enbridge was responsible for the largest inland oil spill in US history, in which 3.2 million litres of crude oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, at a time when the world was busy watching the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.
In a 2012 report, the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the leak, and the fact that it went undetected for 17 hours, to “pervasive organisational failures at Enbridge Incorporated“.
Enbridge’s predecessor, Lakehead Co, was also responsible for a 1.7-million-litre spill in Bemidji, Minnesota, in 1979, and a number of other spillage incidents have been recorded in the past decade.
Data on Enbridge Energy’s Midwestern pipeline systems from 2006 to 2015 show an average yearly spill rate of 4,446 barrels, or 706,858 litres. During this same period, Enbridge’s pipelines in the region accounted for 12 percent of total nationwide onshore crude pipeline spills.
Enbridge argues a pipeline is safer than transporting oil by rail, but environmentalists remain suspicious.
“Enbridge Corporation itself has admitted repeatedly that the expansion of its pipeline network won’t necessarily reduce oil trains,” said Kevin Whelan, the executive director of MN350.org, an organisation supporting policies to fight climate change.
“Spending billions on extreme fossil fuel infrastructure is all about trying to build an international market for the world’s dirtiest oil.”
The appeals court’s decision has resonated throughout a diverse coalition of groups opposed to the pipeline.
“Miigwech [thank you] to Friends of the Headwaters and MCEA for their good work,” said Winona LaDuke, a Native American author and executive director of Honor the Earth. “It is good to finally have some intervention and some justice.”
For indigenous communities in Minnesota, the pipeline represents a different kind of affront.
“[The Public Utilities Commission has] failed to consult with any tribal government,” wrote LaDuke in a press release. “This is 2015, not 1899. Native people should be treated with respect.”
Meanwhile, LaDuke’s organisation has filed suit against the US State Department for allowing Enbridge to sidestep the presidential approval process for its third controversial Keystone XL-sized pipeline project in Minnesota – the Alberta Clipper line.
Honor the Earth also joins organisations such as MN350.org in opposing any new pipeline based on climate change concerns.
“The vast majority of the fossil fuel already discovered has to stay in the ground in order to avoid catastrophic changes to the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Whelan.
“Native American led-groups like Honor the Earth have been clear on this all along. We don’t need this oil in our water or in our air. We need to convert to a clean energy economy instead.”