Activists Resist Frantic Pipeline Development in Trump’s Final Weeks

The final weeks of the Trump administration have been frenzied for oil and gas pipeline companies. On November 24, Enbridge — the largest pipeline developer in North America — filed a lawsuit to block Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from shutting down one of its major projects, swiftly announcing on the same day plans to move ahead with construction on Line 3 in neighboring Minnesota. That whiplash could be an indication of the fights to come with a Biden administration pulled between executive ties to the fossil fuel industry, activists who insist the president-elect deliver on campaign climate commitments and pressure from Canadian officials who have pointed to a limited time frame of pipeline profitability amid global climate commitments.

As InsideClimate News has reported, some activists are hopeful that the Biden administration will deliver on a pledge to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. But that prospect hasn’t brought peace to many in the path of pipelines, who say they’re not expecting much change under a Biden administration. In spite of Biden’s stated plans, Keystone XL developer TC Energy recently announced its signing of $1.6 billion in contracts to build the pipeline, which the company said will employ 11,000 union workers when construction begins in 2021.

Developers of smaller pipelines also appear poised to deliver on construction commitments, such as the Byhalia Connection oil pipeline proposed to run through parts of Tennessee and northern Mississippi, and the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline in Virginia. On November 18, developers of that project got the green light to clear land as they await key federal permits, while activists have been dealt orders to cease protest.

Some activists who have built an aerial blockade along the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s path — an encampment known as Yellow Finch — are defying a Montgomery County judge’s order for protesters to leave, in spite of a fee the judge imposed of $500 per remaining protester per day. The camp is situated in a remote hollow at the foot of the Blue Ridge Plateau, Mother Jones reports, and has been credited with stopping developers from cutting down trees along a small portion of the pipeline’s path.

A spokesperson for Appalachians Against Pipelines, a group of activists that have organized the “tree-sits,” told Truthout three protesters remain in the tree-top blockade, and plan to do so until all permits are revoked and construction is permanently halted.

“This pipeline and others were championed by both Democrats and Republicans and there is no expectation that a change in party leadership on the federal level will impact our fight on the front lines,” the spokesperson, who identified themself as “Taylor,” said. Taylor declined to provide a last name for fear of legal backlash.

Indigenous and climate activists opposing the Line 3 pipeline replacement project have expressed a similar resoluteness. After state and federal authorities approved a final slew of water-crossing permits, which authorized construction on the pipeline, 12 members of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) environmental justice advisory group resigned in protest.

“This project is a clear violation of environmental justice, causing significant trauma to the Anishinaabe people,” the group wrote in a letter to the agency, noting that they would not collectively “continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on Black and brown people.” The MPCA issued the final permit on November 30, and “can now start construction,” Enbridge officials announced in a statement.

Meanwhile, law enforcement near an encampment of protesters in Hubbard County appears to be militarizing, said lawyer and founder of the Giniw Collective, Tara Houska, who is Ojibwe. The Giniw Collective posted pictures on Facebook of the Hubbard County sheriff accepting a delivery of what the group described as “bolt cutters, saws, blow torches etc.” directly from Enbridge, the Line 3 pipeline developer. The Hubbard County Sheriff did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

Houska says opponents of the pipeline hoped Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz would continue to challenge the pipeline as he had when he took office in 2019. “But it turns out they are apparently not as brave as Governor Whitmer over in Michigan and are willing to put our children’s futures on the line to allow a Canadian corporation to do as it wishes and to suppress the rights of our citizens,” Houska said, referring to Governor Whitmer’s decision to revoke easement on Line 5, a dual pipeline that crosses a narrow waterway linking Lake Michigan with Lake Huron.

Whitmer said Enbridge has violated the terms of its easement by ignoring structural problems, including pipe dented in multiple locations by an anchor dropped and dragged by commercial vessels, perhaps Enbridge’s own, leaving Michigan residents at risk of a catastrophic oil spill. “Enbridge has routinely refused to take action to protect our Great Lakes and the millions of Americans who depend on them for clean drinking water and good jobs,” Whitmer said in a statement. The Great Lakes supply drinking water to over 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Enbridge has since sued Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in Federal Court.

Federal Agencies Under Fire

Environmental groups have filed a surge of complaints against federal agencies over the past four years, alleging lackluster and irresponsible permitting of fossil fuel infrastructure. Since 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for instance, has been sued at least 16 times for violating bedrock environmental laws related to its issuing of natural gas pipeline permits, according to a Sabin Center for Climate Change database. In comparison, only four total suits against that agency were filed between 2008 and 2016. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Department of the Interior have also been sued regularly.

Jared Margolis is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that’s a plaintiff in a handful of suits against federal agencies, including a major case before the Ninth Circuit alleging that the Army Corps violated the Endangered Species Act in issuing what’s known as a Nationwide 12 permit for the Keystone XL pipeline — a permit environmentalists say serves as a loophole for oil and gas developers to gain approval for fossil fuel infrastructure quickly by allowing for speedy analysis that bypasses public notification and community involvement. He says the flurry of lawsuits against permitting “gatekeepers” like the Army Corps and Bureau of Land Management could result in stricter permit processes during the Biden administration.

An earlier ruling on the Nationwide 12 case this summer froze 360 Army Corps permit approvals, temporarily stalling construction on pipelines across the country and leading developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cancel that project. “The reason we keep winning is because [the Army Corps is] rushing them through and not doing the work correctly,” Margolis told Truthout.

“This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States,” Dominion CEO Tom Farrell and Duke CEO Lynn Good said at the time in a joint statement. The Army Corps did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

Margolis says Governor Whitmer’s November shut-down order for Line 5 marks the beginning of a new set of logistical and legal challenges, which the Biden administration will be handed as it works toward passing policies to drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions. Amid the legal delays, segments of pipeline have been left in piles under rain and snow for years, Margolis says, as is the case with Keystone XL. Exposure to the elements, including UV rays, has worn down layers of coating that prevent corrosion, he explained. “We need to be looking at this older infrastructure and the danger that it poses.”

In the immediate term, as the latest round of construction begins on long-disputed lines, hundreds of activists are continuing to build community and practice resistance, Houska, the Indigenous attorney and activist said of organizers who continue to resist Line 3. “Our freedom and our bodies are something that’s going to be needed in this long fight against the fossil fuel industry and against the destruction of our only home,” she said.