It’s not Brad Pitt’s “Seven Years in Tibet,” but it’s a story of people committed to protecting their water from a Canadian corporation and a rogue government agency. It’s a story of corporate greed playing out in a time of climate chaos. It’s the story of the 1855 Treaty territory, a place where the wild things are, and the push to take that place. It’s an epic tale.
On Feb. 3, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a certificate of need, a route permit and a (court-ordered) Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Line 3. The PUC voted to approve all permits, with commissioner Matt Schuerger, casting dissenting votes.
In 2013, the Enbridge Corporation first announced the Sandpiper, a 640,000-barrel-a-day, fracked oil pipeline project coming from the Bakken Oil Fields. The PUC moved to approve that project, until the Friends of the Headwaters, a Park Rapids-based group sued, and the PUC was court ordered to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement.
On two later occasions, the PUC moved to approve Enbridge-related projects without a thorough review, both times rebuked by the courts. First, the Line 3 project and then the Enbridge-driven 525 megawatts proposed Nemadji Trails Energy Center (NTEC), a fracked natural gas power plant.
Each time, Friends of the Headwater, the White Earth, Red Lake, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac and Mille Lacs bands of Ojibwe, along with Honor the Earth, Sierra Club and other citizens organizations have intervened in the PUC process.
The Youth Climate Intervenors are compelling. Brent Murcia spoke for the group, talking about how over the years they had graduated from high school, some attending college, and graduating as well. “We should have a promising future ahead of us by all counts”, Murcia said, “but we are faced with immense uncertainty because of climate change.”
For all, it’s been a long and winding road. For seven years, Anishinaabe like Dawn Goodwin, Tania Aubid, the late Joanne Gagnon slogged thousands of miles to ask the PUC to protect the people and waters of Minnesota. It’s been like pulling teeth each time. The commission has approved permits, only to be forced to reconsider by the Courts.
Friday’s public testimony included 116 people who came to speak, many of them standing outside the Senate Office Building from 3:30 a.m.
“People waited all morning and day long for their 120 seconds in front of the Public Utilities Commission,” Akilah Sanders-Reed testified on Monday.
Very few expected the PUC to rule in favor of Minnesota waters or Native people, but the intervenors remain committed to opposing the project in the courts and on the ground. The PUC has become “more of a Corporate Utilities Commission it seems,” one of the intervenors said.
There was a courageous commissioner: Schuerger voted against approving the certificate of need, noting a lack of prudence in the “demand forecast. Science makes it abundantly clear that we must take action on climate change. We will not flip the switch and stop using oil, but there are actions worldwide on climate change,” he said.
In the meantime, commissioner John Tuma was often seen toying with his pen. Chair Katie Sieben interrupted Schuerger at one point, cutting him off to attempt to call the vote, but he continued, “I’m not done.” Newly seated commissioner Valerie Means followed the majority, her expression barely changing in the six-hour long proceeding.
For seven years, I’ve left my home, family and farm to attend PUC meetings. I have had four grandchildren born during this time, and I’ve missed a lot of beautiful moments in life. I asked myself as I drove the 200 miles to the hearing what I would say to them all. I asked the commission the same.
With the PUC approvals, several permits before Enbridge can move ahead, including water quality permits. Enbridge expects to begin construction this summer.
The legal challenges to this PUC decision will be filed within the next month. White Earth Tribal Council member Ray Auginaush, who represents Rice Lake district, told reporters, "We will not let them go through with this.”
Indeed, thousands of people have vowed to support the Anishinaabe and others to protect the water and wild rice, not only testifying at hearings, but signing commitments to join in opposition.
I returned home. It had been a long day. There, I drank water from my well and ate some manoomin. I was grateful.
Winona LaDuke is executive director of Honor the Earth, an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.