Protesters gather at an overlook along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minn., on 03/11/21 to call on President Biden to stop the tar sands Line 3 pipeline that Enbridge is currently constructing
( AP Photo/Jim Mone
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega.
In Minnesota, Native American activists and protesters have gathered to stop construction of the Line 3 pipeline by Enbridge, a Canadian-based company. According to TheNew York Times, the pipeline would carry oil from Canada to Wisconsin through tribal lands and watersheds where critics are worried leaks or spills could taint rivers and damage the environment. This project would replace and expand an older pipeline and move hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil every day. President Biden has positioned himself as a defender of the environment.
Many are watching to see how his administration will respond to the Line 3 pipeline protests and the calls to protect the environment. With me now is Mary Annette Pember national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. Mary, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Mary Annette Pember: Hi, good to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mary, you were just in Minnesota and you were covering the Line 3 pipeline protests. Talk to me about what protesters are hoping to accomplish.
Mary Annette Pember: The water protectors, I think they're hoping to stop Line 3 at this point. According to Enbridge, it's 60% finished, so at this point, I think it would require a presidential action or there are some lawsuits ongoing right now. I think basically, they're wanting to do anything that they can to stop the pipeline construction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The water protectors have really been at the forefront of this work now at least in public media for quite some time. Can you walk us through what protesters and members of Indigenous communities are worried about when it comes to the construction and use of this particular pipeline?
Mary Annette Pember: Of course there's always a potentially a leak. The pipeline, Enbridge has framed it as a "replacement based on safety issues" that the existing pipeline is old and corroding. However, this is actually a new pipeline. There was a project that they tried to do that's similar called the Sandpiper pipeline. What they're creating is a pipeline, it's a larger gauge, greater circumference so that it could carry tar sands oil. I think that they have proven themselves really masterful at creating a public narrative and framing things in ways that are more favorable to them.
Tar sands oil is especially difficult to clean up. I don't know if you may recall that there was a spill in Michigan back in 2010, a great deal of pipeline of this tar sands oil was spilled and, really had a devastating impact on the environment. The greatest concern for Native people is, of course, the pipeline potential for accidents going through their ceded treaty territories on which they have rights to hunt fish and gather, and it would endanger the environment.
I think also both Native people, and non-Native people are concerned about the longer-term implications of spending a great deal of money on infrastructure that's based on long-term vision and usage of fossil fuels and the money would be better spent on furthering some sustainable energy sources.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk to me a little bit about the Biden administration response or lack of response to these protests?
Mary Annette Pember: There's been pretty much a lack of response. I think it's rather difficult for him. He has I think a great deal of ties to labor and, perhaps based on that, that has maybe underscored his reluctance to act.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you say a little bit more about that relative to the ties to labor? I have seen some of the Enbridge responses saying, "Well, we've hired companies that are owned by Indigenous folks and we're hiring workers who are Indigenous folks." It does feel like they're making a claim to a transaction between labor jobs and environmental security.
Mary Annette Pember: Yes. They have been really masterful at forwarding those claims, they actually have created an Indigenous Peoples Policy, they're calling it in which they say that they support United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted in 2007, and the first element of the declaration is that corporations or any project should receive free prior informed consent before they go forward. They say that they support it, but then in the same document, they say, well, it's not legally binding.
I guess they just say it, but they don't do it, which is a striking thing, and they have hired some Native people. That's the thing that I think is very important about this project. Native people are not a monolithic group, just like every other community and population. Some people support things, some people don't, and Enbridge has done a very good job I think of exploiting those differences. There's a great need of jobs in the area and of course, exacerbated by the pandemic. Some people have been forced into a corner and have taken these jobs.
Even though I think there are some Native people who do work for Enbridge either in a direct capacity or as contractors, you don't really see a whole lot of people that are really on their bully pulpit supporting the pipeline, it's imbued with a lot of ambivalence. Many people I think feel that they don't have any choice. I think it's not just the Native people. I think it's the community in general along the pipeline route in Northern Minnesota, there aren't a great deal of jobs. In the North, people rely on tourism, and people feel as though they really don't have a lot of choice. It's rather a complex issue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed. I absolutely understand the points that you're making, having lived in Louisiana along those fence line communities where folks are working for oil companies, because that's what the work is at the same time that they are acknowledging the health consequences for living in those communities right from those polluters. It's a long-term, and a multi-pronged, and as you said, complex issue. Talk to me about what the protesters have so far been able to achieve.
Mary Annette Pember: It hasn't just been "protestors", and we prefer to actually call them water protectors. People have been opposing this pipeline for years and been going through all of the entire legal process, and now we're down to the wire. People are actively putting their bodies on the line. I think that they're at this point where they feel there's really nothing to lose.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mary Annette Pember is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. Thank you so much for joining us today.
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