By Abbey Brooks
This is what I feel when I think of our nation’s current use of fossil fuels: anxious, fearful, overwhelmed, exhausted. I have a need for physical safety. I have a need for widespread compassion for all living things, and I value stability and hope in our future. Regardless of where you’re coming from in the discussion of fossil fuels and pipelines — what are your needs and values? Aren’t these fundamental needs something we share? As a 20-year-old living on this planet, I’m not sure what our future will look like, but if we keep exploiting fossil fuels that were buried in the ground for millions of years, I know that future isn’t one I want to live in.
It’s easy to feel helpless and caught up in climate despair being one person in the face of global disaster and greed. However, there’s something we can do here in Wisconsin that is a tangible step forward for our present and future: reject Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline expansion. I am calling on the Evers administration, via its Department of Natural Resources (DNR), to deny the permits for Line 5. We have the power to do this. Following are some of the many reasons it is necessary to do so.
You may ask — what is Line 5? In short, it is a pipeline owned by a Canadian company, Enbridge, originally built in 1953, that transports up to 540,000 barrels of oil per day from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario. In Wisconsin, the pipeline crosses the Bad River watershed. In Michigan, it traverses the Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron, which, when treated as a single entity, constitute the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world.
Enbridge is proposing to expand the pipeline with an additional 41-mile-long route, crossing in total approximately 188 waterways and violating treaty rights. Line 5 currently goes through the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, but some of its 50-year easements have expired, and the tribe is suing Enbridge in federal court to remove it. Enbridge, perhaps sensing it will lose the court case, is proposing an expansion that would snake around the reservation, endangering more waterways and land than the current route.
Enbridge claims that pipelines are the safest way to transport oil when compared to other methods, such as trucks or trains. Even if more small, isolated spills happen when oil is transported by train or truck, when a pipeline leaks, it spills catastrophic amounts of oil into the environment, causing more critical damage to the water, ecosystem, and environment. The truth is, though, that there is no safe way to transport oil. Enbridge calling pipelines a “safe” method is misleading and blatantly contradicts its track record, which includes the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history. In 1991, more than 1.7 million gallons of oil were spilled in northern Minnesota by Line 3 — a pipeline that was itself recently expanded, heightening the threat of more oil spills. Enbridge is also responsible for the catastrophic Kalamazoo River oil spill of 2010, which cost Enbridge over $1.2 billion to clean up the 1.1 million gallons of tar sands oil spilled into the river. Enbridge is also known to cover up environmental damages caused by pipeline construction, including at least 28 frac-outs that occurred in Minnesota during the Line 3 expansion in 2021. Enbridge used a dangerous drilling technique called horizontal directional drilling, which was the root cause of many of these frac-outs. Guess what? Enbridge plans to use the same methods for Line 5 that it used for Line 3!
Despite Enbridge’s claim to being one of the leading companies producing safe energy, the nearly endless list of environmental damages it has caused makes clear that there is no safe way to transport oil. Fossil fuels are meant to stay in the ground! As anthropologist and Indigenous studies scholar Zoe Todd (Métis) writes about pipelines in her territory in what’s often referred to as Canada,
“It is not the oil itself that is harmful. It rested beneath the loamy soil and clay of what is now Alberta for eons.… it is not this material drawn from deep in the earth that is violent. It is the machinations of human political-ideological entanglements that deem it appropriate to carry this oil through pipelines running along vital waterways, that make this oil progeny a weapon against fish, humans, water and more-than-human worlds” (p.107).
Returning to the value of compassion for all living beings and the land that gives life, we must respect not only the water and animals, but also the fossil fuels — by leaving them in the ground. We humans also won’t have our needs of physical safety or stability met if we continue extracting and transporting fossil fuels. For us, our children, and the following generations to have a place to live and a chance to survive, stopping the Line 5 expansion is a necessary step, one that we as a state have the power to take and model for everyone else.
I want to address another one of Enbridge’s arguments for Line 5 — that if the line gets shut down, oil and gas prices will skyrocket, and families and individuals will have to deal with the consequence of this at the pump. The truth? Enbridge lied. An energy consultant (hired by Enbridge, no less) is quoted in recently published court filings as saying that if Line 5 were shut down, the rise in fuel prices in Wisconsin would be only half a penny per gallon. Individual pipelines do not control the global oil market — big businesses and refineries do. If we have issues with gas prices, we should be taking our complaints there, not to those fighting to protect our water, climate, and lives.
Another reason I believe all Line 5 permits should be denied, and the pipeline shut down altogether, is that it violates treaties with Indigenous nations. Treaties are the supreme law of the land, protected by the U.S. Constitution, yet the U.S. continually ignores them. Enbridge claims it is respecting the Bad River Band by seeking a permit to move the pipeline off their reservation, but the company’s proposed expansion would still be within the Bad River watershed. This dirty pipeline would still directly threaten the tribe’s access to clean water and their ability to fish both on the reservation and in the ceded territories, which are protected by the Treaties of 1854 and 1842, respectively.
As people living in (what’s now known as) the United States, we all have an obligation and responsibility to uphold these treaties, which includes taking action when they are violated. We are all treaty people. Respecting Indigenous sovereignty is something that we can each be a part of, and this is something that the Evers administration cares about. Hopefully, the administration will uphold treaty rights as it considers future pipeline permit requests, such as that for the proposed Line 5 expansion.
A reason for denying a Line 5 permit that also needs more attention is the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and two-spirit people. Indigenous women face murder rates of more than 10 times the national average, and of those, 96% experience violence from a non-Indigenous person. There have been connections to increased sexual violence and cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women around pipeline construction sites, particularly near “man camps” where the pipeline workers live, which are disproportionately on or near reservations. During Enbridge’s Line 3 expansion project in northern Minnesota, shelters and other organizations reported higher rates of violence near construction sites. There were also two sex trafficking stings during construction that caught pipeline workers, further indicating a connection between man camps and some of the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Stopping future pipeline construction by denying Enbridge permits is one way to reduce the high rates of violence against mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, and other Indigenous peoples.
Though the threats of Line 5 are extreme, there is also so much potential for joy and life as communities come together to protect our waters against these crude oil pipelines. The ongoing fight to stop Enbridge’s Line 3 has given rise to community-building and life-giving relationships. When we come together to protect the water and land, have compassion for all living things, and fight for physical safety and stability, we can create communities and spaces filled with joy and respect, something that can feel harder to find these days. Pipelines affect us in the here and now, with most of their effects irreversible. We want a future for ourselves and our children, but we also need support now to survive.
We can’t drink oil, we must protect the water, and we must honor the treaties. This is why the Evers administration’s Department of Natural Resources must deny any permits for Enbridge’s Line 5.
Graphic: Susan Simensky Bietela
Looking to learn more about Indigenous treaty rights and pipelines? Check out the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission’s free guide to understanding Ojibwe Treaty Rights.
Abbey Brooks will be a junior at Edgewood College majoring in Philosophy, with minors in Women & Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies. They are an intern for the 350 Wisconsin Tar Sands Team, working specifically on the campaign to stop Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline. They are involved and interested in community organizing around many different intersecting issues but are rooted in practices of abolition and care. Before joining 350, they were involved with resistance to Enbridge’s Line 3 in Minnesota. Now, they are ready to continue protecting water and Indigenous treaty rights with 350 Wisconsin by fighting Line 5.