When political leaders make decisions that contradict their promises, they owe the public an explanation.
Such is the case with the decisions state leaders have made on the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline. This project seems to fly in the face of political promises to protect the environment, address climate changes, and honor treaty rights.
Enbridge has needed multiple permits to build its Line 3 oil pipeline — approvals from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and others.
This complex regulatory system is confusing and hides accountability. Somehow, agencies spit out decisions that run contrary to science, logic, and what are supposedly core principles.
In the latest chapter of the Line 3 saga, Enbridge needs a water crossing permit from the MPCA, one of the last requirements prior to construction. These permits are meant to protect water quality.
The MPCA proposed approving the permit and the issue went before an administrative law judge (ALJ). News broke last week that ALJ James LaFave ruled against Line 3 opponents, saying they had failed to prove Line 3’s construction would harm wetlands and streams.
Line 3 would cross 355 miles of northern Minnesota, trenching through more than 200 streams and other water bodies and 78 miles of wetlands. It’s magical thinking to conclude this won’t harm water and wetlands.
Instead of getting lost in the legal weeds, let’s step back, look at the big picture, and remember the political promises we’ve heard.
Gov. Tim Walz appointed Laura Bishop as the new MPCA Commissioner in early 2019. At the time, she said the state needed to lead on addressing climate change.
Gov. Walz would later create the Climate Change Subcabinet by Executive Order, calling climate change an “existential threat,” that is to say, it threatens the very existence of human beings.
Just this past month, the MPCA issued the following statement:
As Minnesotans across the state suffer visible and devastating effects of our changing climate, protecting Minnesota’s most valuable resource is becoming increasingly difficult. Research shows that progress being made to improve the quality of our lakes and rivers is offset by climate change: extreme weather conditions and unprecedented rainfall, including 11 mega-rain events since 2000, are slowing progress on protecting our water. Two new state reports call for swift action to increase resiliency and combat the expected worsening effects of climate change on Minnesota’s waters.
Line 3’s environmental impact statement concluded the oil carried by Line 3 would create $287 billion in climate damage over three decades. On May 9, 2018, the MPCA wrote to the PUC commending this climate damage analysis. “Only the No-Build alternative will avoid this very serious consequence to society,” it said.
The issue seems teed up for a career-defining moment. The Line 3 permit gives Bishop the opportunity to take bold, concrete action to address this existential threat.
Instead, she seems ready to duck the issue. The MPCA’s draft permit would approve the project.
If Bishop approves the Line 3 permit, the public deserves a clearer explanation than she’s provided to date about why she ignored it.
Gov. Walz issued an executive order “Affirming the Government to Government Relationship between the State of Minnesota and Minnesota Tribal Nations: Providing for Consultation, Coordination, and Cooperation” on April 4, 2019.
Meaningful and timely consultation between the State of Minnesota and the Minnesota Tribal Nations will facilitate better understanding and informed decision making by allowing for collaboration on matters of mutual interest and help to establish mutually respectful and beneficial relationships between the State and Minnesota Tribal Nations.
This order applies to the MPCA and other state agencies.
Last year, in a talk to Growth & Justice members, Bishop acknowledged the MPCA’s commitment to working with tribes on a government-to-government relationship. ““I am learning. I am excited about this,” she said.
Line 3’s environmental impact statement concluded the Line 3 project would disproportionately harm Indigenous peoples. That would run contrary to the MPCA’s environmental justice policies, which state “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies.”
Both the Red Lake Nation and White Earth Nation have opposed Line 3. They petitioned the MPCA to consider treaty rights as part of its review.
The MPCA rejected their request.
Healing Minnesota Stories emailed the MPCA to ask how the Governor’s Executive Order — and the agency’s own Environmental Justice Policy — shaped the agency’s work on Line 3’s water crossing permit.
An MPCA spokeswoman gave short and vague non answers, more PR spin than accountability for policy commitments. Regarding the the Governor’s executive order, the agency said:
The MPCA is committed to meaningful consultation with Minnesota Tribal Nations, as prescribed in Executive Order 19-24. The MPCA recognizes the importance of its decision-making on the proposed Line 3 project for all of Minnesota’s Tribal Nations, communities, tribal members, and environmental justice communities. For this reason, the agency prioritized intergovernmental coordination early in project reviews and have worked to ensure that tribal and community input has been valued and considered throughout the process.
If the MPCA proceeds with the Line 3 permit, the public deserves a clearer explanation about how it approved the project in the light of the Governor’s executive order and the MPCA’s environmental justice policy.
The MPCA’s mission statement is “to protect and improve the environment and human health.” Yet, in it’s review of Line 3’s water crossings, the MPCA refused to consider the impact of future crude oil spills on the state’s waters.
The agency seems to be tying its own hands.
The MPCA has to make a decision on Enbridge Line 3’s water crossing permits by Nov. 14. If the MPCA approves the permit, Enbridge still needs other approvals, but they could come quickly. Construction could start soon.
Native Nations, environmental groups, and the Minnesota Department of Commerce have challenged Line 3 permits in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. (Commerce has been arguing for several years that Enbridge failed to prove that the oil demand is sufficient to justify building Line 3.)
A decision isn’t expected until mid-2021.
This pipeline goes against stated values and priorities. It would generate billions in climate damage. It would harm that state’s water quality. It threatens future crude oil spills. It puts the greatest harm on those with the least political power.
We need to keep pressing for answers and accountability.