The Canadian oil pipeline company, Enbridge Energy, wants to build another pipeline across northern MN.The company currently operates six lines that carry oil from Clearbrook - along a route that roughly follows highway 2. The lines deliver oil to refineries in Superior, Wisconsin and beyond.
Line number three on that route carries crude oil from tar sands in northern Alberta, Canada. The line is over 50 years old and Enbridge wants to replace it.
The company is proposing to bury the new number three line along an entirely new route that runs through six counties in northern MN. Enbridge is hosting a series of meetings in eight communities along the new route.
Q: How did the meeting go?
SH: Probably not as Enbridge hoped. Enbridge staff set up tables with information about the proposed pipeline in a small conference room at the Double Tree Inn. They wanted to explain and discuss the line three replacement proposal with property owners who live in the path of the line, as well as talk with public officials and tribal leaders.
The meeting was scheduled to go from 4 to 6 o'clock, and when the doors opened a little bit after four, over eighty people quickly filled up the room. After about 20 minutes, Enbridge staff left the room and the meeting abruptly ended.
Q: What happened?
SH: People were milling around, engaged in discussions with Enbridge staff and among themselves. Someone asked for quiet and the leader of Honor the Earth, Winona LaDuke from White Earth, asked the Enbridge staff if the company was going to use the same tactics against pipeline protesters in MN as were used recently by law enforcement in North Dakota. At one point she asked "are you going to bring tanks here?"
After she asked her question a couple of times, a uniformed Bemidji police officer asked her to leave. She declined to leave and others in the room loudly asked Enbridge staff to answer her question. Someone else said "I have a question too. Does that mean I have to leave?" The temperature rose quickly from there and Enbridge staff left.
Q: Who did you talk to?
SH: I asked Enbridge spokeswoman, Shannon Gustafson, about the company's timeline for the pipeline. She said an Environmental Impact Study is underway now and should be completed by next spring.
That would be followed by public hearings and testimony before the MN Public Utilities Commission. Enbridge hopes to get the necessary permits by the end of next year, begin construction in 2018, and open the pipeline in 2019.
She said Enbridge intends to respect tribes as equal stakeholders, and fully engage with them to address their concerns over threats to water quality and gathering rights.
I also spoke with a landowner, Miles Roland. He lives in Beltrami County near the Mississippi River. The old Line 3 that Enbridge wants to abandon runs across his property. He had a lot of questions about what will happen to that pipeline when it is decommissioned.
The short answer to his concerns is that the old line will be cleaned and left in the ground. Enbridge remains responsible for the line after it becomes inactive and will continue to monitor the line. Due to the abrupt end of the meeting, I can't say if Mr. Rowland was reassured.
Three guys at the meeting were pipeline construction workers, heavy equipment operators from Bemidji and Blackduck. They work on pipelines all over the United States. One of them, Robert Dewey, told me he had been to meetings like this before. He said none had been as contentious as this one, and he said everything is going to be different now - that confrontational meetings like this may be more common after the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in North Dakota.
Q: Were many tribal members there?
SH: Yes. A lot. From Leech Lake, White Earth, and Red Lake. I would guess close to a majority of those in attendance. Some of them had been to North Dakota to support the Lakota at Standing Rock. The dozen or more I spoke with strongly oppose the new pipeline. Many non-natives were there to express their opposition too.
Q: So what happened after the Enbridge employees left the meeting?
SH: Many people stayed to talk, but Bemidji officers - uniformed and plain clothes - quietly told us the meeting was over. A few other police came in as people were drifting out. When we left the hotel, we counted seven Bemidji Police cars by the front door.
Q: At any time did you think some kind of violence could break out?
SH: No. Pipeline opponents were the most vocal, but there were definitely people there who support the pipeline - like the pipeline construction workers I met. But they and pipeline opponents never engaged in any kind of open disagreement or angry exchanges. What anger there was, was directed at Enbridge staff.
Q: What's next?
SH: Well, Enbridge has scheduled*F another community meeting from 2 to four o'clock this afternoon in Clearbrook. Many pipeline opponents at the meeting yesterday said they plan to be at the Clearbrook meeting today. Of course, Clearbrook is Enbridge’s distribution center in northern MN so more supporters of the pipeline may be there. NOTE: this meeting has been cancelled.
Some people felt that the meeting yesterday might have gone better with a different format: something like a brief overview of the project followed by a question and answer and discussion period. If the format is the same today, or Enbridge tries to limit access, I wouldn't assume that what happened today won't happen again.
Q. Why doesn't Enbridge just replace line 3 where it currently runs?
A. Mainly because they would have to shut it down for construction and couldn't keep the oil flowing while they build the new one. Also, the old line cuts across the Leech Lake Reservation, and the trend seems to be to route new pipelines and power lines around reservation lands rather than through them.
Q. Just last summer Enbridge withdrew its application to build the Sandpiper pipe line. What's the difference between that project and the line 3 replacement proposal?
A. The proposed route for the new line 3 pipeline is the same as the Sandpiper route. Sandpiper was proposed a few years ago, at the height of the North Dakota oil boom, to bring North Dakota oil to market.
But oil prices dropped. The North Dakota boom cooled, and earlier this year the Dakota Access pipeline seemed to be on track to deliver that oil.
For a while Enbridge was seriously interested in an ownership stake in the Dakota Access line. Now that's been blocked, or at least delayed.
So for now, Enbridge has turned to replacing line 3, which, as noted earlier, will carry crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta Canada.
If Enbridge is successful in building the line 3 replacement on this new route, the company could come back later and propose another line on this new route as well, possibly another replacement line, or a line for North Dakota crude.
*The meeting scheduled for Wednesday Dec. 14th in Clearbrook by Enbridge has been cancelled.
You can see a video from the Bemidji Pioneer here.