MAHNOMEN, Minn. – The young climate activists met at the windmill shortly after sunrise. There were several missions underway on Monday morning but “marmalade” and “peanut butter” were particularly high risk. Protesters using those code names planned to descend on an undisclosed location along a pipeline route known as Line 3. They were ready for arrests.
Dozens of cars were soon caravanning down dusty dirt roads amid corn and soybean fields in the largest salvo yet in an ongoing civil disobedience campaign to try to stop a border-crossing oil pipeline running from Canada across the wetlands and forests of northern Minnesota.
By midmorning, hundreds of protesters, led by Native American women and joined by celebrities such as Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener, had marched into a construction site operated by Enbridge, the Canadian company behind the pipeline, and strapped themselves to bulldozers and other heavy machinery.
“Good morning water protectors!” Tara Houska, a Native American lawyer and a leader of the Line 3 protests, shouted to the group as she banged a drum and crossed into a pump station that organizers said is used to electrify the pipeline.
The intensifying conflict over Line 3 has been driven in part by Indigenous activists who see a double-barreled threat in the pipeline: a carbon-producing fossil fuel project at a time of worsening climate change and one that also risks polluting tribal lands in the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Emboldened by some victories – such as the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the gatherings at Standing Rock – protesters hope to intensify pressure on the Biden administration to suspend the pipeline permit before the project is completed.
“[President Joe] Biden has taken a very clear and very beautiful position on the climate crisis,” Fonda, who was making her second trip to protest Line 3, said in an interview. “But we are really facing a potential catastrophe, and the science is very clear: it’s not enough to do something good here – like shutdown Keystone XL, shut down drilling on the Arctic national refuge – and then allow Line 3 to go through.”
“We can’t do this in bits and pieces,” she said.
So far, the activism has done little to impede the $4 billion project, which is a replacement of a decades-old pipeline, although portions of it travel a new route. About 60% of the 350-mile Minnesota portion of the new Line 3 has been built and some 4,000 construction workers – and growing – are at work on five different areas of the project, according to Enbridge officials.
The ongoing protests haven’t “had a significant impact on construction,” said Paul Eberth, Enbridge’s director of tribal engagement in the United States. “Obviously it’s stressful when people are out protesting or if they’re doing damage to equipment or being disrespectful for the workforce.”
“Construction largely has proceeded as planned,” he said.
The Line 3 pipeline is about 1,000 miles long and runs from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wis., one of a network of pipelines the company operates in the Midwest. There have been disputes over other Enbridge pipelines: In November, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered a nearly 70-year old pipeline called Line 5 in Michigan to be shut down over concern about impacts to the Great Lakes.
Enbridge said Line 3 has “passed every test” in six years of regulatory and permitting review including 70 public comment meetings. Company officials also say they have taken extensive input from tribal nations – including some directly impacted tribes who support the pipeline – and about 500 Native Americans have worked on the project.
“We recognize people have strong feelings about the energy we all use, and they have the right to express their opinions legally and peacefully,” Enbridge said in a statement. “We hoped all parties would come to accept the outcome of the thorough, science-based review and multiple approvals of the project.”
But protesters who stormed the Two Inlets pump station, about 20 miles north of the town of Park Rapids, said that the seriousness of the climate crisis demands more dramatic action to stop fossil fuel projects.
Kerry Labrador, a 39-year-old Native American woman from Boston, was crouched in the dirt, chained to the tire of a red crane-type machine inside the Enbridge facility – and was just where she wanted to be.
“I traveled out here two days so I can sit here and do what I’m doing now,” she said. “I’m sick and tired of these corporations busting through all these sacred lands, trying to take up everybody’s livelihoods and take away the sacredness this earth carries. And I’m done.”
A veteran of multiple tribal and environmental protests, Labrador said that people must take the climate crisis more seriously and these types of fossil fuel projects should not continue.
“If we can shut down construction for a day by doing this, then I have no shame in it whatsoever,” she said. “My kids deserve a future.”
Earlier Monday morning, protesters had scaled the metal fencing to let in the others and set up barricades using trees, poles and a motorboat in an attempt to block access to the facility they occupied. Police quickly responded to the site but kept at a distance along the main road throughout the morning.
By midafternoon, a Department of Homeland Security helicopter flew circles over the pump station telling the protesters to leave and that they were on the site illegally. Protestors said it hovered low above them, kicking up clouds of dirt. A few hours later, police arrived in riot gear and began arresting dozens of people.
“Our security guard force is armed with a cellphone,” Eberth said. “From here it’s up to law enforcement.”
Enbridge officials said that one of the two companies involved in building the pump station that protesters occupied is Native American-owned. That company, Gordon Construction, had “numerous employees who needed to be evacuated this morning” when the protest began, Eberth said.
The occupation of the pump station appeared to be largely peaceful, with protesters climbing onto machinery and chanting such slogans as “Hey hey, ho ho, Line 3 has got to go.”
Houska took a bullhorn and urged the crowd to “protect the sacred”- “For our daughters, for our sons, for the animals, for the water.”
It has been a long journey to reach this point for Houska, 37, a former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who is Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation. She has been fighting Line 3 for seven years, including the past three living in a tent – even in winter – along the pipeline route. She and others in the group she founded, called the Giniw Collective, have been on the front lines of the effort to stop construction on the pipeline. Young protesters have crawled into the pipeline tube, squatted in trees and lashed themselves to machinery to try to impede the work. They have often paid a price, whether enduring freezing temperatures in winter; or being pursued by authorities.
“The majority of arrests have been from our camp,” she said.
Throughout her years living along the pipeline, Houska said she’s learned about the power of “connecting people to the land and water so they understand what they’re fighting for.” She takes people out to tap maple trees for syrup and to harvest wild rice – a sacred species for the Ojibwe – so others can build a bond with the landscape she believes is in jeopardy because of the new pipeline.
Houska has also had meetings at the White House and is pushing the Biden administration to intervene and direct the Army Corps of Engineers to suspend its permit for the project. She’s particularly concerned that the pipeline crosses dozens of bodies of water, including places where wild rice is grown. The tribal nations in the area still maintain the treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on land along portions of the pipeline, she said.
“It’s directly threatening and potentially outright destroying that piece of our culture and of our right and of the guarantee that we hold with the United States,” she said.
Dawn Goodwin, 50, another Native American protest leader from the area, noted that her ancestors had followed a prophecy to leave the East Coast and find the place “where the food grew out of the water” – and they found that cultivating wild rice.
“We’re spiritually, culturally and historically connected to these lands,” she said.
Goodwin, who has participated in Native American rituals and prayers during past protests, said she considered the project more serious than a replacement of an old pipeline.
“It’s a bigger pipe. And a different kind of oil. And in a whole new area,” she said. “It’s very alarming.”
By late afternoon, protest leaders were settling in for a long haul. Some two dozen people remained locked to pieces of machinery and tents were being set up to support a prolonged occupation.
One protest leader said they planned to stay “until they stop construction.”
After 4 p.m., dozens of police in riot gear arrived at the pump station and began making arrests and loading protesters into vans and school buses. Protest leaders estimated that at least 50 people have been arrested but did not yet have a precise count.
While some officers made sweeps through the pump station, others formed lines and faced off against crowds of shouting protesters.