Energy & Environment

Burlington protesters support Indigenous communities fighting Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota

BURLINGTON — Speaking to a crowd of demonstrators gathered in Battery Park, environmental activist Julie Macuga described her recent trips to Minnesota, where she protested the ongoing construction of an oil pipeline.

The Burlington resident saw floodlights block the stars, feared the threat of chemical weapons, and heard the “ceaseless noise of a giant drill burrowing its way under the river,” she said. The crowd, gathered Friday evening, was roughly 200-strong, according to organizer Laura Simon.

“Why would we face all that violence? I will tell you,” Macuga said. “If the Line 3 pipeline is built, it will leak into the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Indigenous-led resistance camps stand between the behemoth black snake and a network of rivers that fractal across 32 states in two provinces.”

Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company, is proposing to abandon its aging Line 3 pipeline for a new, higher-capacity line that would carry 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day, according to MinnPost. Opponents — including the people gathered in Battery Park — say tar sands oil is a heavy greenhouse gas polluter, and they fear the pipeline could leak. 

Friday’s demonstrators want to see global companies with local branches, such as JP Morgan Chase and TD Bank, stop investing in the project. 

Why protest in Burlington, some 1,200 miles away? Geoffrey Gardner, a member of the Upper Valley Affinity Group, which organizes around environmental and energy issues, said the situation matters in Vermont. 

Until earlier this month, Enbridge indirectly owned a percentage of Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas.

“Both Green Mountain Power and VGS are very active informing energy policy in the state,” he said. “Why here? These issues are not just particular to the places where they occur.”

Demonstrators gather in City Hall Park during a march and rally in Burlington calling for a stop to the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota on Friday, September 24, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Line 3 starts in Alberta, Canada and moves through a small section of North Dakota. If completed, the new pipeline would traverse 337 miles across northern Minnesota to Wisconsin, criss-crossing the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Enbridge began construction in December of 2020.

Though the new pipeline would circumnavigate Leech Lake Reservation, through which the existing line already passes, activists say the pipeline would still cross Anishinaabe territory. The U.S. government promised Indigenous people the ability to use the lands in a large swath of northern Minnesota for hunting, fishing and growing food. An accident, like Enbridge’s one-million-gallon spill into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, would be catastrophic, speakers said Friday.

Enbridge argues that the pipeline supports Minnesotans by creating jobs and boosting the local economy, and that it would be safer than the aging infrastructure already in place. 

Macuga, who narrowly lost a bid this summer for the Progressive nomination to a Burlington City Council seat, was one of several speakers to address the Battery Park crowd on Friday. Before the group arrived at the park, they marched from City Hall to TD Bank and Chase Bank, both investors in Line 3.

The group, led by a brass band and chanting “stop Line 3,” was large enough to fill a block of Church Street. Marchers won the attention of the pedestrian mall’s other occupants, many of whom recorded the commotion on phones. 

Twelve of the marchers captained a giant black snake puppet that illustrated a Native American prophecy of the animal destroying the Earth. 

When they reached the banks, marchers, armed with chalk, wrote messages on the sidewalk such as, “honor the treaty, stop the pipeline” and vows to cancel accounts. They delivered notes, written to the leaders of the corporations, inside the buildings. 

Organizers said the day held extra significance because it coincided with the global climate strike, during which people protested in thousands of cities and towns around the world.

At the park, six speakers acknowledged the forthcoming impacts of climate change and its disproportionate effect on marginalized populations. 

Beverly Littlethunder and Charlie Mageso, the first to speak, are members of Indigenous communities. Littlethunder is a Lakota elder from Standing Rock Little Band and Mageso a member of the Abenaki Nation. 

“What I want to really say is that this is the time to change,” Mageso said. “Insanity references doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. We’re in that time once again.”

Leif Taranta also traveled to Minnesota recently. They touched on a theme also expressed by other speakers — that the protest was also a criticism of current power structures on a broad level. Police brutality has taken place on the frontlines of the protest, they said. Taranta also occupied Battery Park in the summer of 2020 to take a stand against instances of local police brutality, and they connected the issues. 

“All of this is really scary,” they said. “It’s really scary to face down riot cops. It’s really scary to sit outside a jail wondering what's happening to your friends inside. It’s really scary to think about chemical weapons, and to just even see drills going through the earth. But the thing that’s scarier than that, for me, it’s not doing anything at all.”

Another speaker, Ashley LaPorte, said she doesn’t consider herself a climate activist, but rather a champion of racial justice. 

“What I want everybody to understand is that, at its core, fighting on the climate crisis and fighting Line 3 is a fight about equity and liberation,” she said. 

That fight shouldn’t be couched in terms of the future, she said. 

“It is today that our Indigenous siblings’ sources of water and food are being destroyed. It is today that Black residents in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh are dying from air pollution in their neighborhoods,” she said.

LaPorte also addressed development closer to home, such as the proposed Champlain Parkway, which would connect Interstate 89 and Main Street in Burlington and, she said, “rip through the Maple and King Street neighborhood here in Burlington.” The project, which an environmental impact statement recently said would have “minimal impacts” to minority populations, is an example of environmental racism, she said. 

Environmental activist and author Bill McKibben speaks during a march and rally in Burlington calling for a stop to the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota on Friday, September 24, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Bill McKibben, a renowned climate activist and author who founded 350.org, was the evening’s final speaker. He, too, has visited Minnesota as part of the ongoing protests, and called the area “unbelievably beautiful.” 

The streams reminded him of Vermont, he said. The pipeline crosses those rivers 46 times before it leaves Minnesota, McKibben said. 

He said Friday’s event reminded him of the 2006 climate march in Vermont, during which activists walked for five days along the western edge of the state before about a thousand gathered at Battery Park. At the time, it was regarded as one of the largest climate-focused gatherings to have occurred in the United States. 

Victories for climate activists include the shut-down of the Keystone XL Pipeline, McKibben said. 

“If we couldn’t build Keystone because it was going to do damage to the climate, why the hell are we building Line 3?” he said.

McKibben called the fight against climate change the “fight of our lives.”

“We do not know how this story ends,” he said. “All we know is that, to have any chance of it ending in any way that we can live with, we all have to do what we can.”

Correction: Enbridge indirectly owned a percentage of Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas until early September. An earlier version of this story conveyed outdated information. 

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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