Enbridge Inc. is a Canadian corporate giant, but it has its sights set on the American Midwest. The company’s network of crude oil pipelines is already the longest in the world. Now it is determined to expand, and crank up the volume of oil running from fields in Alberta, Canada, and North Dakota to refineries in the Midwest and on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Enbridge’s ambitions far surpass those of another Canadian oil transporter, TransCanada, whose grand announcement of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline was met with public outcry. But Enbridge has taken a different approach, working its projects quietly through the system piece by piece, subtly gaining incremental permissions. In seeking state approval for its 616-mile-long Sandpiper Pipeline Project, the company was counting on business-friendly regulatory systems to wave it through—and at first it seemed to be succeeding.
But Enbridge hit a wall in Minnesota. Outraged that a foreign company with a record of major spills was on the verge of running a new pipeline through the densest concentrations of aquatic habitat in the state, citizens and tribal groups leveraged public protest, strategic litigation, and indigenous ceremony to block the permitting process. The Enbridge resisters have shown how informed, tactical activism can shake up complicit regulatory systems in America, and strike back at Big Oil.
In August 2015, Anishinaabe leader Winona LaDuke faced down Enbridge and state officials at a public hearing in a gymnasium in the town of McGregor. “Can you tell me how you restore a wild rice bed?” she asked. “This is the place the creator gave us. This is the only place in the world that is ours,” LaDuke said. “Our wild rice is what identifies us as a people, and we cannot leave it and move someplace else.” The businessmen fumbled an awkward response. One year later under public pressure, Enbridge abandoned the Sandpiper project. The decision was a huge loss to the company, which, along with its partner investor, U.S.-based Marathon Petroleum, had already spent more than $800 million to see the project through.
Despite this jarring setback, Enbridge is doubling down. Today, the company is spending millions and forging new partnerships to continue expansion efforts, all the while quietly manipulating bureaucratic levers to benefit the fossil-fuel economy.
“State regulatory agencies are playing out the script that the industry has written for them,” says Willis Mattison, a retired Minnesota Pollution Control Agency official. “[Regulatory agencies] have forgotten that they still answer to the public.”
Back in the spring of 2010, the reckless practices of the petroleum industry dominated international headlines. For weeks on end, Deepwater Horizon spewed toxic black oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating marine life and the coastal communities that depend on its bounty. Just days after the outflow was finally capped, another spill took a hefty toll in the U.S. heartland.
On the evening of July 25, an Enbridge pipeline in rural Michigan ruptured near the town of Marshall. Monitors at company headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta, noted that pressure in the line had fallen to zero, but control room staff dismissed the signals as “false alarms.” Worse, they responded by twice cranking up the line’s pressure, contributing to an 80 percent increase in the amount of oil disgorged into the environment, according to a 2012 National Transportation Safety Board report. Within twenty-four hours, some 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil had been pumped into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.
The tar sands oil, or “bitumen,” carried in much of Enbridge’s mainline is more like asphalt sludge than oil after extraction—too thick and full of solids to flow anywhere. In order to push it through pipelines, companies dilute the bitumen with chemicals and hydrocarbons, creating the black, sticky mixture nicknamed “dilbit.” Then they heat it to temperatures between 130 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit before blasting it hundreds of miles down subterranean lines.
In an aquatic spill, the noxious diluents evaporate into the air and the hot, heavy bitumen quickly sinks—unlike traditional light crude, which floats on the surface. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences released a damning report on the effects of dilbit spills. It concluded that “regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen.”
Indeed, cleanup crews in Michigan found their protocols and technologies useless against the dilbit’s subsurface spread, in part because Enbridge officials failed to inform them that the substance soaking into their waterway wasn’t the traditional crude they’d been trained to contain.
The Kalamazoo tragedy amounted to the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history. In 2012, the National Transportation Safety Board declared Enbridge was in violation of key regulations, citing “a complete breakdown of safety” at the company.
For all the irreversible damage caused, the Kalamazoo spill is a minor hiccup for a company whose network pumps some 2.6 million barrels of oil per day and earned $1.9 billion in revenue last year. Headquartered in Canada, Enbridge Inc. is like a corporate hydra, with five subsidiaries, including two in the United States: Enbridge Energy Partners and Midcoast Energy Partners. In September, it announced a $28 billion merger deal with Texas company Spectra Energy. The result will be the largest energy infrastructure company in North America.
Mattison, the former Minnesota state regulator, was well into retirement when a group of citizens concerned about the new pipeline asked for his help. In January 2014, Enbridge and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission had begun holding public information meetings in their counties, and the company was fast making headway on its plans. Too fast.
Residents who attended the public hearings, including Richard Smith and Melodee Monicken from Hubbard County, returned with more questions than answers. Why was a foreign company being treated as a public utility in Minnesota? Who had decided this was a good place for a pipeline? And who was evaluating the environmental risks?
After nearly three decades working in environmental regulation, Mattison had a deep knowledge of the dynamics of “regulatory capture,” a process through which big corporations like Enbridge maneuver their private interests past public protections. As he explains it, companies get to set their own timelines, equate the “public interest” with their private agenda, and use their economic leverage to shape a broader policy vision.
“The agencies have learned to go through the motions of public participation but it’s a counterfeit process,” Mattison says. “They get to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, [to show] that they have met the letter of the law. But they fall so short of the law’s intent.”
Already busy, the bespectacled outdoorsman at first declined to help. But Smith and Monicken, who had founded a citizens group called Friends of the Headwaters in response to the Sandpiper threat, persisted. Mattison gave in, but on one condition: “We’re going to have to win,” he told them.
Collaborating with LaDuke’s Honor the Earth organization, MN350.org, tribal governments, and other local groups, Friends of the Headwaters started digging into the pipeline approval process. The company, they found, had already been maneuvering for more than a year. In 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had actually turned down its proposal for a new pipeline. Undeterred, Enbridge teamed up with Marathon Petroleum, giving the project an American flavor and creating a joint venture called the North Dakota Pipeline Company. This time, the commission approved.
Enbridge then turned its focus to the state regulatory process in Minnesota, and it had reason to be optimistic. Back in 2005, then-Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, signed legislation reassigning permitting jurisdiction over crude oil pipelines from the Environmental Quality Board to the Public Utilities Commission, effectively greasing the wheels for industry and creating a bypass around the toothiest environmental legislation.
Now, the only “environmental” staff explicitly involved in the pipeline approval process worked for the pro-business Department of Commerce. The two state agencies tasked with knowing and protecting the environment—the Department of Natural Resources and the Pollution Control Agency—were shunted aside.
Meanwhile, Enbridge had already been working to lock in access agreements, or “easements,” with landowners and carrying out surveys along its chosen route. In July 2013, Steve Schulstrom and his wife, Rita Vavrosky, received a letter from Enbridge notifying them that the proposed pipeline route would split their organic farm in two. When Schulstrom and his neighbors resisted the company’s request to complete surveys on their land, Enbridge casually cited “eminent domain” laws that give public utilities special powers to access private land.
“The letter said, basically, if you don’t let us on we’re going to take you to court,” Schulstrom recalls. “There’s a lot of people . . . that didn’t think they had any options, because Enbridge told them they didn’t have any. They signed their names, not because they supported it, but because they were afraid Enbridge would take their land in the end.”
But Schulstrom and his neighbors decided to fight back. They formed the Carlton County Land Stewards and hired a lawyer who alerted them that Enbridge could not legally invoke the eminent domain law, at least not before receiving permission from the state. Enbridge hadn’t even applied for its permits yet.
Tribal governments throughout the state, upset at being left out of the permitting process despite sovereign status, were also joining the fight. “This position is not just disrespectful, it is an affront to every tribe in Minnesota,” Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said at a public hearing last year.
Tribal members turned out to testify at public hearings, paddling canoes and riding horses in protest along the proposed route. Both the White Earth Band and the Mille Lacs Band filed with the Public Utilities Commission as officially intervening parties. Though the Sandpiper corridor largely avoided reservation land, it ran through much of the 1855 Treaty area, where the tribes legally retain off-reservation rights to hunt, gather, and fish. The route would include drilling horizontally beneath a number of native wild rice lakes that provide the Anishinaabe with a staple harvest.
In June 2015, the Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to issue Enbridge a certificate of need for Sandpiper. The project was slated to move forward, but the activists were not ready to back down.
Aided by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Friends of the Headwaters filed a lawsuit arguing that the Enbridge project should not proceed without a full environmental impact statement. In September 2015, the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, effectively revoking Enbridge’s certificate of need. “The ruling went through the whole anti-tar sands movement like a shockwave,” says Smith.
Meanwhile, Enbridge had filed an application for another major pipeline installation in Minnesota: a so-called replacement of an existing pipeline that handles Alberta tar sands, the same sludge that poisoned the Kalamazoo River. In reality, the project amounted to a whole new pipeline through the same corridor as Sandpiper. With a capacity of 760,000 barrels per day and a $7.5 billion price tag, it would be Enbridge’s largest project to date.
Mattison chokes up as he describes the ongoing pipeline struggles. For him, Enbridge’s conduct and the complicity of regulatory bodies, both state and federal, are a personal affront. “People come up here . . . because of the resources, because of the space, the natural environment,” he says. “To have the largest industrial enterprise plow a furrow through their backyard is to desecrate exactly why they came here to live.”
Enbridge also has major plans next door in Wisconsin, where state regulators appointed by Republican Governor Scott Walker appear to be even more unprepared to inconvenience the company than their counterparts in Minnesota. When the company declared its plans to triple the flow in its existing Line 61 through the heart of the state, the project was approved and state law changed to prevent a local zoning committee from ensuring that funds are in place in the event of a catastrophic spill.
Despite growing global concern about the threat that the fossil fuel industry poses to the climate, Enbridge is looking only to expand and accelerate its arterial underground network. The company’s website lists more than two dozen current crude oil pipeline construction or expansion projects. But its opponents have gathered momentum.
In late summer, members of 150 native tribes and a flock of allied political and environmental groups converged on North Dakota to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux as they put their bodies on the line to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. A 1,172-mile line co-owned by Enbridge, Dakota Access runs through four states and three major rivers, as well as an array of sacred native sites.
“Water is Life! You can’t drink oil!” chanted citizens and tribal members attempting to stall work on one of the pipeline’s construction sites. They are adamant that they are “protectors” of water, not “protesters,” but the message is clear: If regulatory agencies continue to fail us and the land, we will not stand idly by.
Taking on the oil industry is always a heavy lift, but LaDuke maintains a defiant sense of humor. Chuckling, she recalls a meeting a few weeks back with Enbridge: “I told them that they could spend six or seven billion dollars on wind or solar, put it on the reservation, and then we’d like them, you know? Do something enlightened.”
Suez Taylor is an investigative reporter and award-winning filmmaker for Blackbeard Films in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in publications including National Geographic, Time, Ms. Magazine, and The Atlantic. Sadie Luetmer is a freelance investigative reporter and a researcher at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. Her work has appeared on Al Jazeera English.