Oil pipeline exposes the reticence of Tim Walz, and the fate of Minnesota's environmental future

The northern Minnesota pipeline would only expand the production of tar sands, among the most polluting fuels on earth.

The northern Minnesota pipeline would only expand the production of tar sands, among the most polluting fuels on earth. Fibonacci Blue

Organizers, scientists, faith leaders, indigenous activists, and others from across the country descended on Kellogg Park last week. The United States Climate Action Network (USCAN) held its annual summit in St. Paul, with leaders from 175 member organizations in attendance.

The group invited outspoken climate progressives Tim Walz and Peggy Flanagan to a public forum. The focus: climate change and the necessity of stopping Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 tar sands pipeline in northern Minnesota.

Speakers mapped out science, case studies, and the devastation wrought by climate change and pipeline spills in neighboring states. The “meet-the-governors” event went off without a hitch—except that neither Walz nor Flanagan showed. In fact, neither even responded to the group’s invitations.  

Governor Walz may have been busy due to knee surgery on his knee. Still, the silence was noteworthy. Melissa Anderson Kuskie, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency manager, composed the sole presence of state government.

Though Walz campaigned on the notion that “climate change is an existential threat,” tar sands are still a hot potato. This is the strange—and stultified—state of Minnesota politics.

So a mixture of optimism and frustration in Kellogg Park came down to a counterintuitive truth: It might be good news, in a limited sense, that Walz isn’t talking. Beneath his indecision, the levers of change have a fair chance of gaining traction.

The pipeline controversy, pitting Minnesota environmentalists and tribes against the combined front of Enbridge lobbyists, conservative legislators, and some construction unions, is more than a state-level skirmish over conservation, treaty rights, or the energy future of Minnesota. 

National Resource Defence Council, an environmental nonprofit, describes the proposed pipelines TransMountain, Keystone XL, and Line 3 as a “three-pronged threat.” It’s easy to imagine someone in the boardroom of an industry think tank referring to water protectors in Washington, Nebraska, and Minnesota in exactly the same way. 

Alberta’s government recently called for a reduction of oil production due to reduced rail and pipeline capacity. This year, the International Energy Agency released a forecast claiming the province’s energy production prospects were “significantly deteriorated.” Without affordable access to refineries across the United States border, tar sands prices fall, and production with it.

But if all three projects are built, warns Collin Rees, an environmental lobbyist from Oil Change International, they will raise temperatures by 1.5 degrees.

“We cannot afford to build a single new piece of fossil fuel infrastructure that expands production,” he says. “It doesn’t particularly matter whether Minnesota is hitting its own climate targets. Climate change is a global problem… Turning off the expansion of the tar sands, some of the dirtiest oil on the planet, is an absolutely critical part of climate leadership, both here in Minnesota and around the world.”

Walz and Flanagan rolled out a comparatively ambitious plan earlier this year to reach 100 percent clean energy by the year 2050. Of its three parts, “Clean Energy First” explicitly requires that “whenever a utility proposes to replace or add new power generation, it must prioritize energy efficiency and clean energy resources over fossil fuels.”

Enbridge's proposal to construct a pipeline through Minnesota, ostensibly in part to provide our state with energy, will be an early test amid challenges from both Minnesota’s Republican-controlled Senate and Enbridge itself.

“Doing the right thing here, it can’t just be about low-hanging fruit, ” explained Christy Dolph, a wetlands scientist with Science for the People. “It really is going to take courage to make the right decision.”

The current administration has clearly demonstrated a responsiveness to constituent demands. After former Gov. Mark Dayton ordered his Department of Commerce to appeal the Line 3 certificate of need decision, Walz initially wavered on renewing the suit. Grassroots pressure, including numerous rallies at the Capitol and an opposition letter signed by 578 Minnesota faith leaders, finally tipped the scale.

Why does it matter? Line 3 spans the entire state. It is impossible for something to do that without crossing the Mississippi River. Laura Bishop, commissioner of the Pollution Control Agency under Governor Walz, could refuse to “401” water crossing permits.

Taysha Martineau, an Anishinaabe mother of three, planned to drive down from the Fond du Lac reservation. She turned her car around when one of her children fell sick, so a statement was read on her behalf. “I need you to see me as more than a protester,” she wrote. “I need you to see me as a person, as a mother, as a living, breathing human being who needs water to live.”

Deb Topping from Nah Gah Chi Win Nong presented the MPCA's Kuskie with a gift originally meant for the governor. They were three small jars, which she called, “exhibits A, B, and C.” 

One held water, nibi. Another held northern wild rice, manoomin, which can only be harvested by hand, and only grows wild in the Great Lakes region. One held a light brown maple syrup.

Among all of the people who had come with letters, with testimony, with demands, Topping brought gifts. “I’d like you to keep this on your desk, and that will remind you as to us here in the Northland who eat, breathe, live this—off of the land. Miigwetch for listening and hearing.”

Then Rick Joy, from Sustaining Way interfaith in South Carolina, sauntered up, standing with his head bowed and hands crossed as if over a hat. The quiet fell. “I know you’re just one person,” he told Topping. “One person can make a tremendous difference. We want you to do it.”

Everyone heard him.