PALISADE, Minn. — My daughter and I are walking along the fast-flowing stream of pure darkness that is the young Mississippi River. We are two hours north of Minneapolis, in Palisade, Minn., where people are gathering to oppose the Line 3 pipeline.
Patches of snow crunch on pads of russet leaves as we near the zhaabondawaan, a sacred lodge along the river's banks. It is here that Enbridge is due to horizontally drill a new pipeline crossing beneath the river.
We enter the lodge. The peace, the sweetness, the clarity of the water is hard to bear. The brush and trees hardly muffle the roar of earth-moving and tree-felling equipment across the road. The pipeline is almost at the river.
In November, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's administration signed off on final water permits for Enbridge to complete an expansion of its Line 3 pipeline. After the final section is built in Minnesota, the pipeline will pump oil sands and other forms of crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., cutting through Indigenous treaty lands along the way. Lawsuits — including one by the White Earth and Red Lake nations and several environmental organizations, and another by the Mille Lacs Nation — are pending. But construction has already started.
This has been a brutal year for Indigenous people, who have suffered nearly double the COVID-19 mortality rate of white Americans. We have lost many of our elders, our language keepers. COVID has also struck an inordinate number of our vibrant young. Nevertheless, tribal people worked hard on the elections. The Native vote became a force that helped carry several key areas of the country and our state.
On the heels of those victories, the granting of final permits to construct Enbridge's Line 3, which will cross Anishinaabe treaty lands, was a breathtaking betrayal. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is already suffering from climate change. Yet Minnesota's pollution control and public utility agencies refused to take the future of our lakes into account, or to consider treaty rights, in granting permits.
This is not just another pipeline. It is a tar sands climate bomb; if completed, it will facilitate the production of crude oil for decades to come. Tar sands are among the most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet.
The state's environmental impact assessment of the project found the pipeline's carbon output could be 193 million tons per year. That's the equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants or 38 million vehicles on our roads, according to Jim Doyle, a physicist at Macalester College who helped write a report from the climate action organization MN350 about the pipeline. He observed that the pipeline's greenhouse gas emissions are greater than the yearly output of the entire state.
If the pipeline is built, Minnesotans could turn off everything in the state, stop traveling and still not come close to meeting the state's emission reduction goals. The impact assessment also states that the potential social cost of this pipeline is $287 billion over 30 years.
Carbon footprint aside, the extraction process for oil sands is deeply destructive. Mining the sands often requires scraping off the life-giving boreal forest growing over Alberta's oil fields. Photographs of Alberta's oil sands sites show a vast moonscape impossible to reclaim. The water used in processing is left in toxic holding ponds that cumulatively could fill 500,000 Olympic swimming pools, as one National Geographic article puts it.
And if the pipelines were to leak, the sludgy mixture is almost impossible to clean up. The state's environmental impact statement notes that the pipeline will run through two watersheds that drain into Lake Superior. Any spill in the vicinity of the Great Lakes, which contain 84 % of North America's available freshwater, is an existential threat to our water supply.
The climate action group 350Kishwaukee compiled data from Enbridge websites and found at least 1,000 spills by Enbridge pipelines between 1996 and 2014, including a disastrous spill into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2013 that in spite of an extensive effort, just over 160,000 gallons of oil would remain in the river.
"There is nowhere worse on earth to have an oil sands pipeline system than the Great Lakes region," says Rachel Havrelock, the founder of the University of Illinois Freshwater Lab. "It is, everything else aside, the world's worst planning."
The thing is, there was no plan. There is no plan. It's clear to me that with the Keystone XL Pipeline on hold and Line 5 challenged in Michigan, Enbridge is building as fast as it can to lock in pipeline infrastructure before regulatory agencies and governments institute rules on climate change.
Global financial institutions have been realizing the environmental cost of the fossil fuel industry. Last year, Moody's downgraded Alberta's creditworthiness to its lowest level in 20 years, citing (among other issues) the province's reliance on oil sands. Black Rock, HSBC, Deutsche Bank and many other global financial institutions have taken steps to divest from fossil fuels.
But instead of pulling back their production levels, many oil sands companies, with the support of Canadian banks, doubled down, producing a surplus. These Canada-based corporations are perpetrating a vast ecological crime, and Minnesota is their accomplice. But we could cross over to something better. Tar sands do not have to flow through this pipeline. The rivers can heal, the great scars gouged into the wetlands regenerate.
Many tribal traditions recognize women as keepers of water. It is a spiritual as well as practical responsibility, and therefore especially meaningful that Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, has been chosen as our next interior secretary. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota's lieutenant governor and a White Earth tribal member, has taken a firm stand against Line 3. Organizations led by Anishinaabe women have taken every available legal path to protect our waters, but are now engaged in an on-the-ground battle for the future, which brings us back to the lodge by the river. We are here on earth, omaa akiing, and the waters are alive with energy.
One protester named Liam, who grew up in northern Minnesota and near Lake Superior in Wisconsin, spent 12 days camped in a tree directly in the path of Enbridge equipment and was finally arrested by an officer in a cherry picker. Liam tells me, "This is my home. I love the river like a friend and the lake like my mother." Young people here are chaining themselves beneath pipeline trucks, clamping themselves to bulldozers, facing down semi trucks. It is unbearable. They know exactly what's at stake.
The Mississippi widens and becomes mighty as it flows south. Holding my daughter's graceful hand in my own, listening to her sing an ancient song to the four directions, I can feel her strength and her fragility. In the protest camp, people are talking around the fires about First Nations resistance and Standing Rock — they held off a pipeline; so can we. Every morning at 10, people gather to pray. Every day there are more people in the circle.
Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Night Watchman." She wrote this article for the New York Times.