Enbridge so far has paid about $750,000 to Minnesota law enforcement agencies for policing the construction of its controversial new oil pipeline.

The money has covered officers' wages, police equipment and training, including for crowd control, according to information filed with the state. Enbridge will likely spend a lot more before the half-built replacement for its corroding Line 3 is finished.

Enbridge's support of the public-safety fund is mandated as part of Minnesota utility regulators' approval of the $3 billion-plus pipeline. The rationale: make the Canadian company pay for Line 3-related law enforcement costs — not Minnesota taxpayers.

But some legal experts said the fund raises sticky questions about the line between public law enforcement and private-security needs.

"I don't want to make any claims that this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a fraught thing," said Henry Blair, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. "The question at the grand level is, does private-party money going toward a government function impact the way police are prioritizing their obligations? Are police occupying that neutral position we want them to be occupying?"

Protesters say they are not.

"You have a foreign company funding the police in northern Minnesota and incentivizing the repression of citizens," said Winona LaDuke, head of Honor the Earth, a Minnesota-based Indigenous environmental group. "They basically have taken your police force and turned it into their security force."

Sheriffs bristle at such a contention.

"It's not about Enbridge, and it's not about protecting them," said James Tadman, sheriff of Polk County, one of 13 counties that hosts the current Line 3. "People have the right to protest and they have the right to be heard. But once there is a complaint called in — damage to property, trespass — I have to deal with that. … I don't get paid by Enbridge."

Enbridge feeds fund

Enbridge's new 340-mile pipeline across northern Minnesota has been a lightning rod since it was proposed in 2014.

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

Enbridge said the new pipeline, which will ferry Canadian oil to the company's terminal in Superior, Wis., is a big safety upgrade. The company began construction in December after receiving final regulatory approvals.

Protests began shortly thereafter. They have been centered so far in three areas along the pipeline route: Hubbard County, near Park Rapids; Carlton County on the Fond du Lac Reservation; and Aitkin County near the Mississippi River crossing at Palisade.

The protests have been peaceful, and have at times included civil disobedience. Water protectors, as the protesters call themselves, have climbed inside pipes, locked themselves to equipment and halted work through other actions.

Dozens of arrests have been made, mostly for trespass, unlawful assembly and public nuisance.

"It's a huge expense to our taxpayers, and it's not fair for them to have to pay for a lot of things that aren't normal here," Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida said. "The state, the Public Utilities Commission, predicted that a long time ago."

In June 2018, when the PUC first approved Line 3, Commissioner John Tuma proposed making the public-safety account a condition of a key Enbridge pipeline permit.

Tuma said the fund was needed to avoid fiscal fallout from large protests — like those in North Dakota over the Dakota Access oil pipeline in 2016. North Dakota's law enforcement tab ran into the tens of millions of dollars.

"As you know, up in North Dakota they were overwhelmed," Tuma said at a June 2018 PUC meeting.

Line 3 "is going through some areas that do not have a lot of resources," he said. "There is a concern about local governments being overwhelmed by a situation up there."

Enbridge agreed to fund the escrow account. The PUC called for Enbridge to pony up $250,000 and replenish the account as needed; there is no expense cap.

Counties reimbursed

The PUC-administered fund has reimbursed $751,143 to law enforcement for pipeline-related policing, while another $163,198 has been spent on programs mostly run by social-service agencies to combat human trafficking during construction.

The largest policing reimbursements have gone to Cass, Beltrami and Polk counties — respectively $442,689, $184,705 and $68,350, PUC data show.

Those counties are part of the 16-county Northern Lights Task Force, a sheriffs' group that coordinates Line 3 public-safety issues. Also a member is the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's law enforcement arm.

Also reimbursed were several law enforcement agencies from central and southern Minnesota — including Olmsted, Mower, Rice and Wabasha counties — after calls to assist Aitkin County in March. Together, those counties received $53,125, mostly for wages — including overtime — and mileage, according to invoices filed with the PUC.

Wages made up at least 75% of the money received by Cass County. There have been plenty of reimbursements for equipment, too.

Beltrami County picked up more than $74,000 worth of gas masks, protective suits, baton stops, security holsters and other gear to "ensure weapon retention for Public Safety Line 3 responses," one invoice said.

Beltrami also was reimbursed for at least $25,000 in expenses associated with "field force" training conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

FEMA pays for the actual training, which includes instructing officers on techniques for mass arrests and crowd control.

The PUC has rejected $236,640 in reimbursement requests because they didn't conform to the commission's guidelines.

Those include an $18,653 request from Cass County for electronic fingerprint equipment; an $11,170 tab from Beltrami County for "ballistic" or bullet-resistant helmets; and a roughly $8,200 bill from Polk County for interactive TV equipment for its emergency operations center.

To oversee what gets reimbursed and what doesn't, the PUC hired a former longtime Bloomington police officer who most recently worked as an investigator for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.

Protesters plan lawsuits

The public-safety system — from law enforcement to courts — is increasingly strapped for cash, said Joshua Page, a University of Minnesota sociology professor.

"More and more people are in the court system and more people are jailed," he said. "There is a huge strain on local government."

While the escrow account could ease such strains, Page said it may also push the line between public and private security forces.

LaDuke and other pipeline protesters plan to sue some pipeline counties, alleging unconstitutional harassment by sheriffs' deputies, including strip searches. They said the conduct has been effectively encouraged by the PUC escrow account.

"This is completely incentivized by the amount of money flowing into these county sheriff's offices," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group leading the litigation.

"Everything they spend focusing on water protectors is reimbursable," she said. Normally, because taxpayers foot the bill, they "are a brake on excessive expenditures and improper activities."

Verheyden-Hilliard, who has defended pipeline protesters elsewhere in the country, said the corporate-funded PUC escrow account is unique.

Aitkin County's Guida also said he doesn't like that the escrow account arrangement can make it look like Enbridge has hired them.

"We're not interested in being private security," he said.

But the escrow fund cushions the financial impact of diverting scarce police resources, he said.

"It's not fair that our communities have less public patrols and less presence because all of our cops are tied up at the pipeline."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003