‘There has to be a point when we say enough’: University students, faculty and alumni voice opposition to Line 3 pipeline

Following the tar sands oil pipeline approval on Nov. 30, advocates call for Gov. Walz to deny or delay construction.


Image by Emily Pofahl

Activist and Giniw Collective member Wabigonikwe Raven poses for a portrait in front of St. Anthony Falls on Saturday, Nov. 28. The Giniw Collective is an Indigenous women, 2-Spirit led group that is an active part of the StopLine3 movement.

by Becca Most

Following the approval of several key permits through Nov. 30, a new Line 3 crude oil pipeline is set to run across northern Minnesota, with construction already underway.

Citing concerns about the environmental impacts of oil spills, the health risks and effects on Indigenous communities, some University of Minnesota students, faculty and alumni have been fighting the Enbridge Energy pipeline for years.

The new Line 3 pipeline will replace an older Line 3 pipeline that was built in the 1960s and will run from Alberta, Canada through North Dakota and northern Minnesota before ending in Superior, Wisconsin. This new pipeline can transfer nearly 760,000 barrels of crude oil per day and will emit 273.5 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Enbridge Energy was responsible for the largest inland oil spill in the country when a Michigan pipeline burst in 2010 and leaked at least 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

MSA calls for the University to make a statement

Maddie Miller, a University of Minnesota third-year individualized studies major, started the Students Against Pipelines student group last year and interned with nonprofit MN350 to do pipeline advocacy work last fall and summer. She is also the Minnesota Student Association’s environmental accountability director.
When the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved a crucial water permit on Nov. 12, 12 of its 17-member Environmental Justice Advisory Group resigned. In response, Miller helped draft a petition to University President Joan Gabel, urging the University to make a public statement opposing the pipeline.

“As the largest public educational institution in the state, the University of Minnesota is greatly influential in Minnesota’s economic and scientific future,” the petition said. “The University of Minnesota also prides itself on its environmental stewardship and intends to become carbon neutral by 2050, but an oil pipeline with the carbon emissions of 50 new coal-fired plants would be a detriment to much of that progress.”

Because the University also prides itself on its location on the Mississippi River, an oil spill would drastically impact the river’s water quality and livelihood of nearby ecosystems, the petition said. Though the University acknowledges that the college rests on land forcibly taken from Dakota and Ojibwe people, the letter added that the University needs to take further responsibility and advocate against a pipeline that would directly violate treaty lands and harm Indigeneous communities.

Signed by MSA, the American Indian Student Cultural Center, UMN Climate Strike and several other student organizations, the letter was passed by MSA unanimously on Nov. 24. Miller said they are still waiting on Gabel’s response.

Impact on Indigenous people

Tara Houska, a University alum, tribal attorney and Couchiching First Nation citizen, has been fighting the Line 3 pipeline for nearly seven years, leading national policy work and talking with lawmakers and shareholders.

Founder of the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous women and Two-Spirit-led pipeline resistance group, Houska and other advocates have been living in a community resistance camp 200 yards from the pipeline’s route, growing food and training others in direct action. The pipeline will disrupt land treaties of the Anishinaabe people, detrimentally impacting the Red Lake, White Earth, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac and the Big Sandy Lake Bands reservations, Houska said.

The pipeline will also run within half a mile of 17 wild rice beds around the state. Wild rice is a culturally significant staple of food and source of revenue for many Indigenous people, said Wabigonikwe Raven, a member of the Giniw Collective and enrolled member of the Lac Courte Orielles Anishinaabe tribe.

“Not getting this pipeline built is really important to me,” Raven said. “It’s bigger than all of us, because once it gets put in the ground, it doesn’t just stop there. Pipelines leak and destroy ecosystems.”

Although she was not surprised to hear of the governor’s response to the pipeline’s construction, Raven said it is saddening to see Gov. Tim Walz have no empathy for people who will be affected by the pipeline and that this is just another example of historic oppression and disregard for Indigenous people.

“Engaging with these big companies to try to force them to transition away from fossil fuels is about our survival as people,” Houska said. “This project is one project among many, but there has to be a point where we say no more. There has to be a point when we say enough.”

Houska said the young people coming into this space will step out as tomorrow’s leaders.

“And, you know, what kind of world do you want that to be? I hope it’s one that has clean drinking water and human rights being upheld and treaties no longer being broken,” she said.

University health, water experts denounce pipeline

Laalitha Surapaneni, an assistant professor of medicine at the University, has been giving testimonies and pushing against the pipeline for years. She was one of many medical professionals who held a teach-in at the State Capitol in January calling for the governor to acknowledge the negative health impacts caused by fossil fuels and potential oil spills.

Surapaneni said the pipeline’s construction has come under fire by frontline workers in northern Minnesota where the construction will take place. Although Enbridge has said the pipeline will create thousands of jobs, most of the workers are not from the communities they are operating in, and some are from out-of-state areas with higher rates of COVID-19.

She said this has alarmed rural health care providers whose hospital beds are already full.

In November, a petition submitted to Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health from Aitkin County health care professionals and residents called for a temporary delay of the project due to the pandemic.

Christy Dolph’s involvement with Line 3 started in 2017 when she testified against the Public Utilities Commission about the environmental impacts of the new pipeline. A former University water resources scientist, Dolph specializes in streams, rivers, lakes and wetland ecosystems.

Dolph said freshwater species are some of the species most heavily impacted by mass extinction worldwide, and the best way to preserve these ecosystems is not to put them at risk in the first place.

Line 3 is set to run through 818 wetlands, over 200 streams and lakes, including Lake Superior, and across the Mississippi river twice. Tar sands oil, the type the pipeline will transfer, is different from other types of oil because when spilled, it sinks below the surface of the water rather than floats to the top, which makes it more difficult to clean up.

“We don’t have time to sit back and passively do research in our lab when the stakes are so high, and the crisis is so dire,” Dolph said. “If we want to solve these problems, we really have to take what we know and start making decisions upfront, … especially when we know fossil fuel use needs to be downscaled or eliminated immediately. We have a handful of years to really turn things around.”

A previous version of this article misattributed a quote said by Tara Houska.