Enbridge has doled out about $4.8 million to cover policing and public safety costs related to construction of its new Line 3 across northern Minnesota — and the final tab will be higher.

Meanwhile, courts in counties along the pipeline's route are clogged with hundreds of cases involving protesters. Several have been charged with felony theft for chaining themselves to pipeline construction equipment.

The felony theft charges, which have been levied in several counties, are prosecutorial overkill, said Joshua Preston, an attorney representing at least 35 defendants. "They are intended to have a chilling effect — to discourage people from engaging in protest."

But Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden said by chaining themselves to equipment, protesters deprived contractors the use of their property, which is a theft under state law.

"When they break the law, we charge people," he said.

Many protests were expected after Enbridge won final approvals in late 2020 to build its 340-mile new Line 3 across northern Minnesota.

With that in mind, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) required Enbridge to fund a public safety escrow account when it approved new Line 3, a replacement for an aging and corroding pipeline.

The safety fund was aimed at protecting cities and counties from being deluged with large bills for policing pipeline protests, which ended up being continual throughout the construction process, especially in the summer. The fund has been criticized by anti-pipeline groups that say Enbridge was able to use local police as a security force, something denied by both the company and law enforcement agencies.

Through Jan. 7, the PUC had accepted 175 reimbursement requests from 86 state, county and local agencies — almost all of them law enforcement.

Most of the money has covered officers' expenses and wages; police protective gear; and training and law enforcement preparation for protests. The largest recipient of Enbridge money so far: the Minnesota State Patrol, which submitted a bill for $1.5 million in December.

Next largest, in order, were the county sheriff's departments for Cass, $907,507; St. Louis, $360,623; Beltrami, $251,086; and Pennington, $135,859. Hubbard County, a particular hotspot for protests, does not appear to have submitted its full bill yet.

The PUC, which administers the account, set a reimbursement deadline of April 1 – which is 180 days after oil began flowing in the new Line 3. Enbridge initially contributed $250,000 and replenished the account as needed; there was no expense cap.

The PUC has denied 25 applications for reimbursements, including two sheriffs' office requests of around $25,000 — one each from Polk and Cass counties — for certain types of equipment.

Also, the PUC denied two requests from the Hubbard County Attorney's Office — which totaled about $27,000 — for wage and overtime costs. Prosecution expenses are not allowed for reimbursement, the PUC determined.

Hubbard County Attorney Frieden protested to the PUC, but to no avail, PUC records show. Hubbard was the only county that attempted to get prosecution expenses covered by the public safety fund, according to the PUC.

Enbridge's original Line 3, built in the 1960s, was decaying and operating at only half capacity due to safety concerns. The company maintained that a new pipeline along a new route would be a safety improvement, an argument that swayed the PUC.

Environmental groups and Ojibwe bands have long opposed the new pipeline, saying its route opens a new region of Minnesota rivers, lakes and wild rice waters to oil spills, as well as exacerbating climate change.

In six counties — Hubbard, Aitkin, Clearwater, Cass, Carlton and Beltrami — 736 people were charged, said defense attorney Preston. At least 300 people were also charged in other counties where protests were held.

Of those 736 cases, 556 are still open and about 40% of those involve gross misdemeanor charges, Preston said. At least one felony charge is involved in 43 open cases.

New Line 3 traverses Hubbard County. About 320 cases remain open in Hubbard, Preston said. Charges include trespass, unlawful assembly and public nuisance.

Prosecutors are levying gross misdemeanor trespass charges under a state law passed in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks that was aimed at "critical infrastructure" like pipelines.

Defense lawyers argue the law was designed to apply to operating pipelines, not a pipeline under construction such as Line 3.

Since law enforcement was reimbursed by the public safety account, "the bar was lowered for arrests," Preston said. "In a different world, there is a limiting factor — budgetary constraints."