The Nov. 19 performance at the Theater of Public Policy at the Bryant Lake Bowl could have been its most instructive ever.
Protest is an important part of the public policy process and an American tradition. Audience members got it up close and personal when Line 3 pipeline resisters consistently interrupted the show with heated questions and commentary, ultimately drawing an early curtain.
I strongly oppose Line 3. I attended the show and chose to observe rather than disrupt, but I support what happened. I was glad the Star Tribune ran a story, but it lacked important context for why the protest happened.
The Theater of Public Policy mixes policy wonks with improv comedy. Last week's show included Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioners Dan Lipschultz and John Tuma. The show happened the same day that the PUC took its final vote supporting the controversial Enbridge Line 3 crude-oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
That pipeline, which will contribute to climate destruction and threaten Minnesota's waters, wild rice and Anishinaabe treaty rights, is not comedy material.
This is how the show was supposed to run: Emcee Tane Danger would interview Tuma and Lipschultz about how the PUC works; improv actors would then riff a few sketches based on their stories.
Several of us in the audience have worked to stop Line 3 for years — playing by the PUC's rules. We sat through hearings and public forums, spoke from the heart when given the opportunity, filled out forms when forms were offered.
It didn't work. Our voices were ignored.
Danger told audience members that the theater had tackled Line 3 before — in a show that had both sides represented. But in this show, the only voice on stage was the pro-pipeline PUC. Allowing the show to run as usual would have continued to center PUC voices that need to be challenged. It would have continued the pattern of speaking only when spoken to.
We were in no mood to show deference to Lipschultz and Tuma, listening to them speak in generalities about how utility regulation is supposed to work instead of how we actually saw it work.
Protests are an effort to wake people up and challenge the narratives of those in power. Here are concrete examples of things said during the show that needed real-time challenges:
In response to a question, Lipschultz said the PUC follows state laws and rules. That probably seemed innocuous to most audience members. For those of us who watched the PUC proceedings, it was a hot coal.
The law required Enbridge to prove Line 3 was needed. Minnesota Department of Commerce experts testified that Enbridge didn't provide crude oil demand forecasts, as required, and failed to make its case. The PUC ignored the law and inexplicably put the burden of proof on Commerce to show that Line 3 wasn't needed.
Tuma talked about the PUC's independence, saying it tries hard to insulate itself from corporate influence. Yet at every major turn in the Line 3 case, the PUC sided with Enbridge, ignoring the vast majority of public comments, key recommendations from the administrative law judge and critical facts in the environmental impact statement.
Lipschultz touted how the PUC implemented the state's carbon-reduction plans. In 2005, 65 percent of Minnesota's power came from coal, he said. Today, only 43 percent of our power comes from coal. By 2030, only 22 percent will come from coal.
What Lipschultz omitted was that approving Line 3 would create the carbon pollution equivalent of 50 new coal plants. The Line 3 environmental impact statement put Line 3's social cost of carbon — damages from drought, hurricanes, agricultural losses, etc. — at $287 billion over the 30 years. The PUC rejected that number, saying the science was too imprecise. Effectively, the PUC put Line 3's climate impact at $0.
I understand disrupting the show was upsetting for some audience members. I hope the experience encourages them to look into the facts and understand why people took this action.
As jarring as it might have felt, this action came from a place of deep hurt and caring for our climate, indigenous rights, and clean water.
Scott Russell lives in Minneapolis.