Making history this week, 13 young people from Minnesota joined five indigenous tribes, four organizations, and one landowner in a Minnesota courtroom to challenge a $7.5 billion pipeline proposal put forth by the Canadian fossil-fuel company Enbridge.
The 13 activists between the ages of 16 and 24, known as the Youth Climate Intervenors, are fighting against what’s known as Line 3, a pipeline project they see as a threat to not only their own futures, but those of other young people around the globe. The Line 3 project would create a new pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin, to replace one built along a similar route in the 1960s.
The plan has raised concerns among Minnesota residents because of Enbridge’s history of spills and leaks, prompting environmental and indigenous groups across the state to utilize a Minnesota state law that allows individuals or groups to enter contested case proceedings as official parties. When Akilah Sanders-Reed, an organizer at the Power Shift Network and one of the 13 Youth Climate Intervenors, learned this was happening, she jumped on the opportunity. “The minute I heard that, I knew that young people needed to have a seat there,” Sanders-Reed said. She mostly sought out other young activists in Minnesota. “We can actually have a seat at the table based on the fact that we are going to be the most directly and disproportionately impacted by this decision,” she said. “The people making this decision aren’t. They’re making decisions about us without including us.”
On May 15, three days after filing their petition, the Youth Climate Intervenors explained to a judge—without a lawyer—how Line 3 would affect them and why they wanted to be a formal party in the case. On July 5, Judge Ann O’Reilly gave the group standing in a landmark decision, agreeing that their generation will be disproportionately affected by climate change. Empowered and pleasantly surprised by the decision, the Youth Climate Intervenors immediately began recruiting expert witnesses to testify against the project for the November case.
Margaret Breen, an 18-year-old sophomore at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and another of the Youth Climate Intervenors explained that the group was alarmed by the myriad risks associated with a potential new pipeline. If built, it would cross watersheds, wild rice lakes, and the Mississippi Headwaters. “It’s not a replacement,” she said. “It’s an entirely new pipeline along a different route and carrying more oil.” Specifically tar-sands oil, which, she added is “incredibly hazardous.”
Breen referred to an incident in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as one example of what might happen if Line 3 is built. In July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and released over 840,000 gallons of oil that ran into the Kalamazoo River. Last year, Enbridge settled with federal regulators on Clean Water Act violations, and the firm paid $177 million as a result.
Because the pipeline would pass through Minnesota, Minnesotans would not receive most of the transported oil, despite bearing the brunt of the pipeline’s risks. Breen said the company should explore alternative energy sources or remove the old pipeline altogether. “Enbridge likes to talk a lot about jobs when supporting this pipeline,” she told The Nation. But removing the pipeline would create jobs as well, she said.
Michael Barnes, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said that the company has made a concerted effort to meeting with indigenous groups—despite some non-starters, as several groups refused to meet—to “make adjustments to our project routes and designs to address specific concerns related to cultural and environmental resources.” He cited a meeting with the White Earth Band of Ojibwe as one example of when the company adjusted its proposed route. “We are committed to working with the tribes, or anyone for that matter, to understand their concerns and finding reasonable solutions to address and mitigate potential impacts of construction and operations,” he told The Nation. Furthermore, Barnes defended cleaning and decommissioning the old Line 3, saying that doing so is “the safest option.” Rather than removing the pipeline, he said this plan would reduce risks to soil stability and avoid more construction, which could impact existing pipelines, landowners, and the environment.
Yet other major concerns remain. The project’s social cost of carbon, or the long-term costs from carbon emissions, over a 30-year period is estimated up to $287 billion, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. (Barnes noted Enbridge is “address[ing] the climate impacts resulting from our businesses and support[ing] the transition to a lower-carbon economy.”) Frances Wetherall, a student at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, noted that the lifespan of the project would be 60 years, which would cause even more damage for future generations. The fossil fuel that Line 3 would carry—tar-sands oil from Alberta—is a thick mix of oil and other substances that is more carbon-intensive than conventional oil.
“I’ve heard some people refer to it with Green Eggs and Ham,” Wetherall said, adopting the cadence of the children’s book: “I do not want it in a pipeline. I do not want it by rail. I do not want it moved at all. I just want it to stay in the ground.”
The evidentiary hearing will end on November 17, at the latest. The judge on the case will then review not only testimonies but also comments made at public hearings that were hosted throughout the state in late September and October. She will announce her recommendation on the project by the end of February. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will then consider O’Reilly’s decision and decide whether to grant Enbridge its permits by April.
For now, the Youth Climate Intervenors have gathered 10 expert witnesses for the trial. Breen noted that they are all volunteers. All of Enbridge’s witnesses are paid, which Breen noted has been the case in the past. “In a case similar to this that happened a few years ago, with the Sandpiper pipeline, Enbridge paid their expert witnesses upwards to $500 per hour,” Breen said. “And, actually, the resistance won, and the Sandpiper was never built.”
You can help support the Youth Climate Intervenors and other activists challenging the project by submitting comments online against the project until November 22. Breen said it’s important to raise as many voices as possible—the more people speak out, the better a case they have. “This is a climate disaster,” she said, “a clean-water disaster, and a disaster for the world and the state of Minnesota.”
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].