Ten ways structural racism permeated Enbridge Line 3 decisions, and continues to influence them

Structural racism has played a significant role in Enbridge Line 3’s approval and law enforcement’s responses to water protectors.

Structural racism, as defined by The Aspen Institute Round Table on Societal Change, is:

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.

Aspen Institute on Societal Change

Here’s a top ten list of structural racism in Line 3 decisions. Got more to add? A critique? Submit them in the comments section, below.

1. The recent Line 3 approval is built upon the legacy of past racist decisions on pipeline routing

Current Enbridge mainline corridor (orange) and proposed new Line 3 route (green).

Enbridge has six pipelines running in its mainline corridor through Minnesota. The corridor crosses two Native nations (Leech Lake and Fond du Lac). The corridor also is trespassing on 8.5 acres of Red Lake lands, a dispute that remains unresolved.

This all started in 1950 when Enbridge built Line 1. Enbridge kept adding pipelines along the route. This happened at a time when there were few if any regulations regarding pipeline routes; it also happened at a time when Native nations had no political power to stop such construction. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government was actively trying to terminate tribes and tribal rights.

The decisions that went into routing Enbridge’s mainline corridor through Native lands decade ago are baked into today’s on-the-ground reality.

2. In the PUC’s initial June, 2018 vote to approve Line 3, all five Commissioners were white. They lacked an understanding of Indigenous values.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was a key decision-making body in approving the new Line 3. In 2018, at the time of its original approval, all five PUC Commissioners were white. They showed little if any understanding of Native culture and values, and apparently didn’t feel compelled to learn about them.

One example: The day before the final vote, PUC Commissioner John Tuma mused about how Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples viewed land differently. His ancestors settled on 80 acres of Big Woods swampland, he said.

“That field, that house, that farm … that was our freedom,” Tuma said. “That is what we saw in that land.”

Indigenous people have a different view of land, Tuma continued. “You have an almost a romantic relationship with it. It’s like a marriage. I can’t come up with the right words. That’s the best I can do.”

If that was the best Tuma could do after Line 3 had been before the PUC for years, he wasn’t trying.

Traditional Indigenous people see land not as a resource to be exploited, but as a relative to be protected and respected.

During the 2019 revote on Line 3’s Certificate of Need and Route permits, Valerie Means, who is black, had joined the Commission. She voted in favor of Line 3.

3. The PUC cherry-picked facts — ignoring arguments against the pipeline, minimizing the harms to Indigenous communities, and approving an unneeded project.

An administrative law judge (ALJ) held multiple public hearings and took expert testimony on Line 3’s route and Certificate of Need. In her recommendations to the PUC, she concluded the costs outweighed the benefits for Enbridge’s preferred route. The PUC ignored her recommendation.

The state-prepared environmental impact statement (EIS) for Line 3 estimated its climate damage to be $287 billion over three decades. The ALJ adopted that number in her findings of fact. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) affirmed it. The PUC Commissioners dismissed their analysis, arguing that people driving cars creates climate damage, not pipelines. (The PUC effectively replaced the $287 billion damage estimate with $0.)

The Minnesota Department of Commerce recommended the PUC reject Line 3’s permits, saying Enbridge failed to prove the new pipeline was needed. The PUC Commissioners ignored its recommendation.

The PUC dismissed a number of experts to get to “Yes” on Line 3. At the same time, the Line 3 EIS made it clear that Indigenous communities would bare disproportionate harm from this project.

Had the PUC used similar mental gymnastics to justify a decision that would have disproportionately harmed more white and affluent residents, there would have been a much bigger ruckus and most likely a different outcome.

4. State regulators willfully ignored treaty rights

The PUC and other state regulators approved the pipeline without considering treaty rights, an issue repeatedly raised by Anishinaabe nations. The PUC couldn’t approve Line 3 if it knew the project violated federal law. Treaties are the supreme law of the land, (U.S. Constitution, Article VI), and override federal law. The PUC made no effort to understand its obligation to follow treaties. It didn’t engage treaty law experts. It didn’t delay its decision until treaty issues could be sorted out. The PUC’s 2018 order approving Line 3’s Certificate of Need said that understanding treaty rights “is not necessary to the Commission’s decision.”

The PUC chose to be willfully ignorant of its treaty obligations. In effect, it sided with Enbridge over Native nations on how to interpret treaties. Just because treaty rights are decided by the federal government, not the state, doesn’t mean the state gets to ignore them. That’s what the PUC did.

5. Federal regulators ignored treaty rights, too

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued water crossing permits to Enbridge Line 3 without doing its own EIS and analysis of how Line 3 would affect the interests of the Red Lake and White Earth nations, and other Anishinaabe bands.

The Corps didn’t evaluate treaty rights, specifically Line 3’s threat to their rights to hunt, fish, and gather on lands they had ceded to the U.S. government. The lands traversed by Line 3 contain wild rice and other resources central to Indigenous people’s spiritual and cultural practices.

The Corps refused to evaluate the grave risks of Line 3’s potential tar sands crude oil spills into wetlands, streams, and rivers under Corps jurisdiction and how that would affect treaty rights.

6. The PUC didn’t take seriously Native people’s concerns that the influx of out-of-state workers would bring sex trafficking to the area

Native nations, organizations, and sex trafficking experts repeatedly raised concerns with the PUC that the influx of out-of-state workers would lead to increases in sex and drug trafficking. This was of particular concern because of the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives, and the greater risks Native women faced from trafficking.

The PUC granted Enbridge its permits without requiring an approved Human Trafficking Prevention Plan. It only ask the Enbridge eventually submit one. This precluded the opportunity for others to comment and critique it.

Enbridge submitted a very weak plan and the PUC rubber stamped it.

Since construction started, news has leaked that two Line 3 workers were arrested in a human trafficking sting, including one for soliciting sex from a minor. A women’s shelter in Thief River Falls has helped women who have been abused by Line 3 workers.

The PUC didn’t require Enbridge to report these crimes; we don’t know the extent of the problem.

The PUC required no transparency or accountability for an issue of great importance to Native peoples. If those women threatened with harm by Line 3 workers were white and more affluent, the PUC would have paid more attention to this problem.

7. There’s no way to hold PUC commissioners accountable for their decisions, or even explain them

The PUC doesn’t have to answer to the Indigenous people, or the public in general, about issues such as its lax conditions to address Line 3-related sex trafficking.

The PUC staff cannot speak for the Commissioners, the PUC staff said. The Commissioners speak only through their written orders. The PUC staff cannot provide any explanation beyond what is included in the written orders.

The PUC is described as a quasi-judicial body, but there’s a big difference between it and the courts. Courts hold people and organizations accountable for their actions. If found guilty, they go to jail or pay a fine. If people fail to comply with court orders, the court issues stiffer sanctions.

In contrast, the PUC isn’t holding Enbridge accountable for much of anything. And no one can hold the PUC accountable for its flawed decisions.

8. The Governor’s Executive Order promising meaningful consultation with Native Nations was meaningless

A sign that’s been appearing at Stop Line 3 events.

On April 5, 2019 Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan issued an executive order which they said would ensure that the State of Minnesota would engage with the 11 tribes within the state’s borders in true government-to-government relationships “built on respect, understanding, and sovereignty.”

“We are committed to meaningful consultation with the tribal communities in our state,” the media release said.

That promise should have applied to Line 3 deliberations. In spite of strong tribal opposition, Walz never took a public stand against Line 3, or even thought to explain how the state’s approval of Line 3 squared with his executive order.

Michael Fairbanks, chairman of the White Earth Nation, wrote Gov. Walz last spring reminding him of his promise of “meaningful consultation” with Native nations. He urged Walz to intervene to stop the pipeline.

Walz wanted credit for issuing the Executive Order, but apparently felt he could break his promise with no consequence. It reflects how little power Native nations have in the system.

9. The MPCA’s Environmental Justice Framework was meaningless

The MPCA has touted its Environmental Justice framework, including its commitment that “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies.”

Based on Line 3’s disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples, the MPCA’s Environmental Justice Advisory Group opposed the permit. The MPCA approved it anyway.

More than half the advisory group’s members resigned in protest, writing: “… we cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on black and brown people.”

The MPCA’s promises about environmental justice were empty and the agency was apparently unconcerned about any backlash. It reflects how little institutional power Native nations have in this system.

10. Law enforcement is overzealous cracking down on water protectors, seems less concerned with Line 3-related problems

Eight people were arrested at a January Line 3 action. Photo: Tom Thompson

Starting back in 2018, the state began organizing to respond to Line 3 resistance. It created the secret Northern Lights Task Force to coordinate between various state and local law enforcement agencies and Enbridge. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety has refused to release even basic information about the Task Force, including its budget and mission.

The state didn’t form a parallel task force to focus on Line 3’s harms, such as increased human trafficking.

Line 3 resistance has been non violent. Regardless, law enforcement’s gone to great lengths to monitor water protector social media, to follow anyone who even stops to photograph pipeline construction.

In Carlton County, the Sheriff evacuated 40 houses within a half-mile of a device thrown into a pipeline construction area. (It was later reported to be an electronic-style device making audible noises.) The device was supposedly linked (but not proven) to water protectors.

That’s an evacuation zone larger than law enforcement would need for truck packed with a half-ton of TNT.

It’s yet one more sign of the out-of-proportion fear law enforcement seems to have of Indigenous people (as well as Black people and other people of color).


Want to add items to this list? Have a critique? Leave a comment.

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