Enbridge Inc. is a Canadian corporate giant, but it has its sights set on the American Midwest. The company's network of crude oil pipelines is already the longest in the world. Now it is determined to expand, and crank up the volume of oil running from fields in Alberta, Canada, and North Dakota to refineries in the Midwest and on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Enbridge's ambitions far surpass those of another Canadian oil transporter, TransCanada, whose grand announcement of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline was met with public outcry. But Enbridge has taken a different approach, working its projects quietly through the system piece by piece, subtly gaining incremental permissions. In seeking state approval for its 616-mile-long Sandpiper Pipeline Project, the company was counting on business-friendly regulatory systems to wave it through--and at first it seemed to be succeeding.
But Enbridge hit a wall in Minnesota. Outraged that a foreign company with a record of major spills was on the verge of running a new pipeline through the densest concentrations of aquatic habitat in the state, citizens and tribal groups leveraged public protest, strategic litigation, and indigenous ceremony to block the permitting process. The Enbridge resisters have shown how informed, tactical activism can shake up complicit regulatory systems in America, and strike back at Big Oil.
In August 2015, Anishinaabe leader Winona LaDuke faced down Enbridge and state officials at a public hearing in a gymnasium in the town of McGregor. "Can you tell me how you restore a wild rice bed?" she asked. "This is the place the creator gave us. This is the only place in the world that is ours," LaDuke said. "Our wild rice is what identifies us as a people, and we cannot leave it and move someplace else." The businessmen fumbled an awkward response. One year later under public pressure, Enbridge abandoned the Sandpiper project. The decision was a huge loss to the company, which, along with its partner investor, U.S.-based Marathon Petroleum, had already spent more than $800 million to see the project through.
Despite this jarring setback, Enbridge is doubling down. Today, the company is spending millions and forging new partnerships to continue expansion efforts, all the while quietly manipulating bureaucratic levers to benefit the fossil-fuel economy.
"State regulatory agencies are playing out the script that the industry has written for them," says Willis Mattison, a retired Minnesota Pollution Control Agency official. "[Regulatory agencies] have forgotten that they still answer to the public."
Back in the spring of 2010, the reckless practices of the petroleum industry dominated international headlines. For weeks on end, Deepwater Horizon spewed toxic black oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating marine life and the coastal communities that depend on its bounty. Just days after the outflow was finally capped, another spill took a hefty toll in the U.S. heartland.
On the evening of July 25, an Enbridge pipeline in rural Michigan ruptured near the town...