Line 3 Pipeline Construction Began Without Proven Need: A Brief Review of a Flawed Path to Certification.

Despite legal interventions challenging the legitimacy and safety of Enbridge’s Line 3, oil pipeline construction is advancing in northern Minnesota, causing immediate environmental impacts to waterways and the death of one pipeline worker. Both activists and scientists question the merits of the pipeline’s approval process and the scientific standards upon which regulatory agencies evaluated Enbridge’s proposal.

In 2014, the Canadian multinational corporation Enbridge Energy proposed replacing a portion of its aging Line 3 pipeline, which carries crude oil from the boreal forest of Canada to the shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. Advancing Line 3 necessitated an environmental impact review by federal agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as review and certification at the state level under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act.

The proposed Line 3 route extends from the Clearbrook terminal in northern Minnesota to the Lake Superior terminal near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. While the new route avoids reservation land and the Chippewa National Forest, it crosses over vulnerable waterways and land used for sustenance and religious practice by members of Ojibwe nation bands and safeguarded by treaties. Map courtesy of Friends of the Headwaters.

Enbridge needed approval to cross 227 water bodies, to empty dredged sediment into 1,049.58 acres of wetlands, and a certification of need assessing the soundness and benefits of the proposed route. Scientists critical of the approval process say regulatory bodies, such as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), conducted analyses that are limited in scope and scale.

Claiming that there will be no long term effects to wetlands is ridiculous, geologist Laura Triplett told me in an interview. She and five other health and environment researchers authored a report critical of the MPCA’s methodology in evaluating impacts to waterways. Within the guidelines of the Clean Water Act, regulatory agencies must review whether certain projects will impact water beyond a year. In their report, Triplett and other professors of biology, earth sciences, and physics collectively state that the MPCA’s conclusions are not supported by principles of “sound science” and that the agency avoids complex systemic impacts by keeping its analysis narrowly defined (oil spills and climate change don’t receive adequate attention).

How did this project move forward, despite fierce opposition from the general public, legal challenges from three Ojibwe nation bands, whose land the pipeline crosses, and a clear rebuke (see below) from The Minnesota Department of Commerce, the agency charged with assessing the overall environmental impact of the proposed project?

A press release summarizes the DOC’s findings on the environmental impacts and economic merits of the pipeline, declaring the project unnecessary. After the agency reviewing the DOC’s analysis reached different conclusions, the DOC filed two lawsuits challenging the Minnesota Pollution Control’s certification of need.

America receives 95% of Canada’s crude oil shipments, according to Oil Sands magazine, Prime Minister Trudeau approved Line 3 along with the expansion of another line, Trans Mountain. He argued that Canada could maintain its global commitments to reducing emissions through other actions such as taxing carbon pollution and phasing out coal-fired power plants. Though Trudeau forecasted a fossil fuel free future, currently, Canada’s economy relies on selling its Alberta crude oil reserves, the third largest in the world.

Native tribes on both sides of the northern border experience the impacts of bituminous oil extraction and its transfer via pipelines. Producing one barrel of oil requires three barrels of water, and tar sands extraction leaves behind vast tailings — or waste ponds that render water bodies and fish unfit for consumption.

Furthermore, pipelines rupture. When Line 3 ruptured on March 3, 1991, it marked the largest oil spill in U.S. history; 1.7 millions gallons of oil spilled onto the thankfully frozen surface of Minnesota’s Prairie River. In 2010, another Enbridge pipeline — Line 6 — spilled 1 billion gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo river. Because bitumen is sticky and highly viscous, removing the oil from exposed wildlife and vegetation proved impossible in affected areas of the Kalamazoo, according to the Scientific American.

The Department of Commerce’s Energy Environmental Review and Analysis unit was the agency charged with carrying out an environmental impact statement (EIS) and economic analysis of the project, which it completed in October of 2017 and released for public comment. “In light of the serious risks of the existing Line 3 and the limited benefit that the existing Line 3 provides, Minnesota would be better off if Enbridge proposed to cease operations of the existing Line 3, without any new pipeline being built,” said Kate O’Connell of the DOC in public testimony.

The DOC’s conclusions did not sway the MPUC, however, which granted Enbridge a certificate of need and route permit in September of 2018. Hearing a challenge to the permit The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in favor of three Ojibwe Nations and accompanying environmental advocacy groups when it mandated that the DOC’s environmental analysis was incomplete. It failed to account for the potential impact of an oil spill on the Lake Superior watershed, judges ruled, mandating a revised report. After revisions the Public Utilities Commission approved the project once more in a 3 to 1 vote in May of 2020.

The Department of Commerce is currently challenging the approval in the Court of Appeals, for inadequately evaluating the demand for crude oil, though construction continues. Enbridge claims that crude oil demand will remain steady through 2035, while the DOC’s lawsuit and expert opinion assert otherwise.

An interactive timeline of the regulatory approval process, beginning with Enbridge’s proposal in 2015 can be found here:

It’s not just the specter of oil spills that prompts concern. While Enbridge argues that no permanent impact will come as a result of bisecting wetlands with pipe or filling them with dredged sediment, Triplett disputed these conclusions in an interview. She said that MPCA’s evaluators only considered the areas of wetland immediately surrounding pipeline infrastructure while ignoring cumulative impacts to water resources. She added degraded wetlands would result in increased flooding and a loss of water reserves. Other routes should have been considered, she said, as the pipeline will lay above underground glacial deposits of sediment, which due to their composition, facilitate the swift spread of oil and chemical leaks.

On the ground, a group of citizen scientists known as Watch The Line are monitoring ongoing environmental impacts. They regularly post photos and share them with scientists like Triplett, questioning what’s happening, including burning trees felled during construction, reportedly doused with diesel fuel.

Enbridge construction workers gather trees for burning following clearcutting of forests. Video screenshot from Jami Gaither via Facebook. In her video Gaither says she sees no people monitoring the fire.

While the route from Canada to Lake Superior is long, there appear to have been shortcuts, or at least gaps, in oversight.

For ongoing information regarding legal challenges to the pipeline and its historical context visit Honor the Earth’s Stop Line 3 campaign:



Abē he holds a masters degree in journalism @newmarkjschool. Topics of interest include food, environmental and racial justice, and being more human.

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Abē Ross Levine

Abē he holds a masters degree in journalism @newmarkjschool. Topics of interest include food, environmental and racial justice, and being more human.