After a decade-long battle, the indigenous communities across Canada and the United States celebrated a win when TC Energy announced that it was officially terminating the Keystone XL pipeline that it had been trying to build to bring crude oil from Alberta, Canada down to Texas. The Keystone XL pipeline termination is an important victory for indigenous communities and environmental activists alike, proving without a doubt that people do have the power to fight back against multinational corporations when they organize.
While the Keystone XL may be defeated, the fight is far from over. Today, there are at least 80 proposals for new pipelines pending. Here is an account of the destruction that oil pipelines cause to communities and an overview of some of the major organizational efforts currently underway to stop new pipelines.
Unregulated and Unaccountable: Why Pipelines Are the Focus of Protests
The argument in favor of oil pipelines has long been that they are safer than transporting that oil by truck or train. This is true, but pipelines still cause catastrophic damage. They’re safer in the same way that driving after drinking two beers is safer than driving after drinking nine beers—both should be avoided. In the decades spanning 1986 to 2012, pipelines killed a total of 536 people and injured another 2,366.
Vulnerable low-income or predominantly non-white communities bear the brunt of this. While the average length of pipeline in affluent communities is 7.2 miles per 100 square miles, the average in vulnerable communities is nearly double that at 12.1 miles of pipeline per 100 square miles.
Most significantly, the most dangerous pipelines, known as “gathering” or “transmission” pipelines, are overwhelmingly located beneath vulnerable communities. The increased pressure inside these gathering pipelines makes them more vulnerable to leaks and explosions, especially if they’re not regulated properly—and they aren’t. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the department responsible for inspecting the 2.5 million miles of pipelines and enforcing environmental standards, only has records for about 5% of these higher-risk pipelines.
The PHMSA is so underfunded that it cannot even afford to fully staff the department to the degree required to actually inspect and enforce. As a result, they currently only inspect 44% of hazardous liquid lines and just 7% of natural gas pipelines—meaning a total of roughly 250,000 miles (or 10%) of the 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the United States are subject to regular inspection.
In addition to the lack of enforcement by PHMSA, the oil and gas industry has also lobbied its way into becoming exempt from many key environmental protections. According to a 2007 report released by the Oil & Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) and Earthworks, the oil and gas industry is exempt from the following environmental protection legislation:
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Clean Water Act
- Clean Air Act
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Toxic Release Inventory under the emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act
Between the lack of sufficient oversight and the sweeping exemptions granted to the oil and gas industry that make them unaccountable to most of our major environmental protection laws, this industry and its pipelines have a free pass to deal environmental and human damage to their profit margin’s content.
In addition to the human cost of pipelines, they also deal significant blows to infrastructure, natural resources, and landscapes. Since 2002, pipeline incidents caused $9.8 billion in damages. Despite these costs, PHMSA levied just $70 million in penalties on oil and gas companies in the same time period. From a profit perspective, this is just a drop in the bucket for these companies. For the communities whose homes and families have been torn apart by pipeline explosions and contaminated water and land, the losses are too devastating to reduce to dollars.
The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people of Northern Minnesota have been resisting the construction of the Line 3 pipeline, a project led by Enbridge Corporation, for seven years. The existing pipeline ships crude oil from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. Repeated ruptures and spills have caused long-term environmental damage and the old pipes are severely corroded, making them vulnerable to explosions and leaks.
Rather than clean up the mess its made or repairing this dangerous pipeline, Enbridge Corporation has proposed building a new pipeline that would cut through the Ojibwe territory, threatening lakes, rice beds, and wetlands on its way.
In June, over 2,000 indigenous folks and allies gathered together at a Minnesota construction site to stop the project from moving forward. Since then, approximately 200 people have been arrested while the rest are holding ground and keeping the pipeline project on hold. This video posted to Twitter shows the scene on the ground when police came to break up the gathering and arrest activists:
Whether you’re ready to join the camp in person or you’re only able to support the cause from home, there are a lot of ways you can help the fight to Stop Line 3. Here are some of the most urgent requests from Treaty People Gathering, the main organizers behind this movement:
- Call President Biden. You can reach the White House’s Climate Office at (888)724-8946 to voice your demand that the President stop Line 3 right now.
- Donate to the bail fund for the 200 activists who were arrested at the camp.
- Contact the Governor of Minnesota and the State’s Attorney General to demand the release of these activists and fair treatment of those who remain at the camp.
Resist Line 3 has also put together this helpful document with more ways you can support the movement.
Enbridge Corporation is also meeting resistance regarding another pipeline running through the Great Lakes in Michigan. Line 5, built in 1953, passes through the treaty lands of five different tribes in the Michigan region. In November 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked the company’s easement that allowed them to operate this pipeline.
Despite the Governor’s order, which required all operations to stop by May 11th, 2021, Enbridge Corporation is refusing to comply. The company is in direct defiance of the Governor’s orders and the legal battle is getting heated.
While Enbridge continues to illegally operate the pipeline, it’s also filing for permits to reroute it—an effort that local organizers are trying to stop, even as they keep the pressure on to enforce compliance with the Governor’s order.
You can help keep up the pressure by signing a petition to demand that President Biden help the Michigan Governor enforce the order. You can also donate to the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), one of the legal organizations handling the legal battle to get Enbridge Corporation to stop breaking the law.
Dakota Access Pipeline
The Standing Rock protests that gained media attention back in 2016 are still ongoing five years later. While the North Dakota camp at the construction site was cleared in 2017 (using attack dogs and riot police) and construction was completed by April of the same year, the fight continues to shut the pipeline down.
In March 2020, the Standing Rock Sioux filed a lawsuit in March, 2020 against Energy Transfer, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. At present, a court order to shut down operation of the pipeline has been overturned in an appeal, so oil continues to flow through it. However, an environmental impact report has been ordered.
You can help this fight by signing a petition urging President Biden to ramp up the pressure on Energy Transfer and finally get the Dakota Access Pipeline shutdown. You can also donate to the Lakota People’s Law Project, one of the organizations behind the #NODAPL movement.