Protests against two Midwestern pipelines this week signal a challenge for the Biden administration as it navigates a path between federal rules, its climate agenda and the Democratic Party’s left flank.
Days of protests in northern Minnesota against Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 oil pipeline wound down yesterday, after opponents and celebrities like Jane Fonda strapped themselves to heavy machinery at a company site, saying the project threatens waterways and global climate goals. An estimated 200 people were arrested during the protests, at which a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter hovered low over a crowd near Park Rapids, Minn.
The unrest occurred as groups launched ads pushing back against both Line 3 and a separate pipeline in Michigan, and as Biden climate envoy John Kerry said that pipelines could be used for low-carbon fuels.
The moves highlight how pipelines are emerging as one of the biggest political challenges for an administration that is courting unions and facing pressure from environmentalists who want President Biden to deliver on his campaign pledge to ban oil and gas permitting on federal land.
"It will be a challenge throughout his administration," James Coleman, an associate professor of law at Southern Methodist University, said of the pipeline controversies. "It’s a tough balancing act."
Biden’s decision on his first day in office to cancel a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, angered labor allies. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, whose union endorsed Biden’s candidacy, told Axios in February that he thought the president’s Keystone XL decision was a mistake that would cost union jobs.
Unlike much of Biden’s climate agenda that requires congressional approval, some permitting decisions for pipelines fall squarely on the presidential desk.
For example, protesters say Biden could tell the Army Corps of Engineers to suspend or revoke Line 3’s federal clean water permit, a plea they made to the president in a letter last month. The Line 3 replacement project involves replacing sections of the existing aging oil pipeline, which travels nearly 1,100 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., and was built in the 1960s (Energywire, Dec. 1, 2020).
In the past, project opponents have also called on Biden to revoke Line 3’s cross-border permit, as he did with Keystone XL. Doing so could stop Line 3 from operating, even though the project’s cross-border segment is complete (Energywire, March 9).
"The difficulty the Biden administration has here is, it actually has to make a decision on some of these permitting projects," Coleman said. "Often, in government, you can say, ‘Well, it wasn’t really up to me,’ but on some of these pipelines, frankly, it is up to the Biden administration."
He noted that the administration has rejected high-profile, controversial pipelines like Keystone XL, but has been decidedly less vocal about other pipelines.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Yet Kerry, who has warned that oil and gas companies risk ending up with "stranded assets" if they don’t transition faster to cleaner energy, yesterday also endorsed the use of pipelines as a tool for low-carbon energy sources.
Speaking at the American Clean Power Association’s "CLEANPOWER" virtual conference, Kerry said he’s talked with people in the industry who say such an energy transformation is possible, including for energy companies in Italy.
"The Saudis have talked about using their existing infrastructure," Kerry added. "A lot of it or some of it has to be retrofitted, but basically, we are told we have the ability to be able to transit hydrogen, ammonia through pipelines and make this work. Not everywhere and not without alteration, obviously. But the point is that the world is moving in this direction, there’s no question in my mind."
Line 3 fight
The "Treaty People Gathering" protests over the Line 3 replacement project, which included dozens of groups, such as Honor the Earth, Oil Change International and multiple chapters of 350.org, led to dozens of people being issued citations, along with the arrests, organizers said.
A spokesperson for Treaty People Gathering said there would likely be ongoing protests against Line 3 into the summer, as "water protectors" exercise their First Amendment rights and commit acts of disobedience. As of late yesterday, some protesters maintained a blockade at a pump station in Park Rapids.
A press release yesterday from the organizers said police tactics during the protests included use of a "Department of Homeland Security helicopter flying at an unlawful height to kick dust and rocks into people’s faces."
A video retweeted this week by Honor the Earth shows a helicopter flying low to the ground, with swirls of tan-colored dust rising into the air.
Northern Lights Task Force MN, a team of northern Minnesota law enforcement groups, said on Twitter and Facebook this week that the helicopter from Customs and Border Protection was brought in "to issue a dispersal order to a large group of people in the area of Two Inlets Pump Station," which is close to Park Rapids.
"The idea was to provide the order in a manner that everyone would be able to hear," the statement read. "Unforeseen to local law enforcement and due to the extremely dry conditions, dust kicked up in the area. As soon as helicopter staff saw what was happening, they immediately left the area to ensure no further issues would be caused. This was not an intentional act to cause discomfort or intended as a dispersal mechanism."
A spokesperson from Customs and Border Protection said the agency’s branch in Grand Forks, N.D., was responding to "a local law enforcement request for assistance to address a gathering of people who were reported to have trespassed on private property."
"CBP’s headquarters is investigating the facts to determine precisely what occurred and whether the actions taken were justified," the spokesperson said in a statement. "All appropriate actions will be taken based on the facts that are learned, including with respect to the incident itself as well as the agency’s applicable policies and procedures."
Canada-based Enbridge has said the aging original Line 3 pipeline is running at only half capacity and that replacing it would better protect the environment.
In a statement yesterday, the company said it respects "everyone’s right to peacefully and lawfully protest, but trespass, intimidation, and damage to property is unacceptable, and we will seek the full prosecution of all involved."
Michael Barnes, an Enbridge spokesperson, said this week’s protests affected work at only one site, near Park Rapids, and that construction continued yesterday and today at dozens of other work sites in northern Minnesota.
"To date, protests have had little impact on the project’s construction schedule which is on track to be completed and in service in the fourth quarter of this year," Barnes said in an email.
Enbridge started construction last December on the Minnesota portion of the replacement project (Energywire, Dec. 2, 2020).
Separately, opponents of Line 3 and Enbridge’s Line 5, which carries light oil and natural gas liquids from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario, also came out with TV and radio advertisements this week knocking the two lines.
In the Line 3 ad, Silas Neeland, a 13-year-old member of the White Earth Nation, calls on Minnesota Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith to "stand with us to stop Line 3."
The ad comes from the Stop Trump Pipelines campaign, a joint project of the Bold Alliance and the Indigenous Environmental Network.
In the Line 5 ad, narrated by actor Jeff Daniels and launched by the National Wildlife Federation, Daniels says the pipeline puts the "pure Michigan way of life at risk."
"A Line 5 oil spill would devastate our Great Lakes, our drinking water and our economy," Daniels says in the ad. The National Wildlife Federation said the initial run will be "six figures" and will air in markets around the state. A similar 60-second radio ad will also start in Michigan markets, the environmental group said yesterday.
The TV ad ends by saying, "It’s time to stand with Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer and shut down Line 5." Whitmer, a Democrat, set a deadline of mid-May for the pipeline to shut down, but Enbridge has continued operating Line 5 and said a shutdown would have "serious, broad ramifications" (Energywire, May 12).
Granholm pipeline push
Despite the public attention on protests, pipelines have proved tricky for the Biden administration even without them.
Last month, Biden directed a full-court press to allay gas shortages across the Eastern Seaboard after a ransomware attack led Colonial Pipeline Co. to temporarily shut down its network.
After Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said pipelines are the "best way to go" to transport gasoline in that region, Republicans accused the administration of hypocrisy, citing Biden’s Keystone XL decision, although the Keystone XL pipeline would have carried unrefined Canadian crude oil to the Gulf Coast. Colonial distributes petroleum products to East Coast markets.
Granholm later clarified her remarks, telling reporters on a trip to Houston this month that "at the Department of Energy, we’re not against pipes," and saying the administration views green energy and decarbonization — which will require pipelines to move carbon dioxide — as a way to create jobs. She added that the administration "wants to build more" pipelines.
Granholm in April delivered a thumbs-down to Line 3, however, although she acknowledged that the project isn’t in her purview.
In response to a question about the Biden administration’s stance on the Minnesota project, Granholm told a CNN town hall that the administration would prefer pipelines carrying clean-burning hydrogen or carbon dioxide headed to underground storage, rather than oil.
The latest protests come as anti-pipeline activists have been emboldened by a few victories, including Biden’s Keystone XL decision.
And Coleman noted that environmental activists have considerable allies, including landowners; property rights organizations; and, in the latest cases, Native American tribes that the Biden administration has promised to assist, along with other communities affected by climate change and the fossil fuel industry.
Granholm at the CNN town hall insisted that there was "great sensitivity to the Indigenous peoples who will be affected by" the Line 3 pipeline.
The Associated Press contributed.