‘Oil destroys life’: Winona LaDuke on why she fights Midwest pipeline projects

By: - December 1, 2019 6:03 am

Winona LaDuke photo

Winona LaDuke is internationally known as a vocal indigenous activist in northern Minnesota, where Canadian oil giant Enbridge Energy has been attempting for years to construct a new Line 3 pipeline through tribal lands and sacred wild rice lakes.

Ralph Nader | U.S. National Archives via Flickr Public Domain

She is also an economist, writer, author of seven books and co-author of many more. LaDuke is perhaps best known as Ralph Nader’s Green Party running mate during the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns.

But her true passion lies in activism. LaDuke is co-founder and executive director of Honor the Earth, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization that works toward environmental justice for indigenous people. Battling pipeline projects is one of the group’s main objectives.

Honor the Earth has been involved in a number of resistance efforts to combat fossil fuel infrastructure projects that would negatively impact tribal land; the most well-known being the infamously violent confrontation between law enforcement and Standing Rock activists their supporters over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

LaDuke is Ojibwe herself and moved to Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation several decades ago before becoming an activist.

“People ask me where I live, to describe it, and I say, ‘Where the wild things are.’ That’s where I live.. …We just want to keep it that way,” she said. “[An oil spill here] would destroy life. Oil destroys life.”

Enbridge says the proposed pipeline is a replacement for its existing Line 3, which was built in the 1960s and has an extensive history of oil spills. The new Line 3 would follow a mostly new path through Minnesota and the old pipeline would be decommissioned in place.

Worker on the Line 3 Replacement Program in Western Canada | Enbridge

“Once the replacement pipeline is operating, the existing Line 3 will be thoroughly cleaned, disconnected and deactivated,” Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy wrote in an email. “… Enbridge developed the project’s proposed route based on its extensive pipeline routing experience, knowledge of applicable federal and state regulations, and agency, tribal, landowner and other input.”

As lawsuits and regulatory hiccups push the construction of the new pipeline further and further down the road, the 57-year-old Line 3 is still in operation.

The following are excerpts from the Advance’s interview with LaDuke, edited and organized for clarity.

On her start with pipeline activism:

LaDuke: This [has been] a seven-year battle. I’ve been in this for seven years of my life. I’m a rural development economist. I’m busy growing food, local energy, doing community education and culture work – then all of a sudden, I’m facing the single largest pipeline company in North America. We all are.

On the connection between Line 3 and Michigan’s Line 5:

LaDuke: As you can tell, the issues are pretty interrelated. … You know, both states have a lot at risk here.

If you’re a state like Michigan or Minnesota, and you’re looking at two of the greatest lakes in the world, being faced with the possibility of an Enbridge oil spill [from] some 50 or 60 year old pipelines, you’d be pretty worried. And you should be.

And then you’d be worrying about who’s going to pay for it. They’ve projected the price of the spill there in the Straits of Mackinac is like $6 billion if they could clean it up, and we have no idea what that looks like because there’s a lot of death associated with oil. So what percentage of the lake is killed before they do that?

… You’ve got a Canadian multinational corporation with tremendous liability, endangering a lot of the water in three states for sure. … We should be very concerned.


We all face the same problem. Michigan and Minnesota have a lot of pipelines in them. In fact, the whole country has a lot of pipelines, and it turns out that they’re all falling damn apart.

On the pipeline impacting wild rice and its importance to Minnesota’s Ojibwe people:

LaDuke: [The new pipeline] would affect like 40 separate wild rice lakes. So, you know … that is entirely unacceptable. The Ojibwe have protected this area since we were placed here by the Creator.

Ojibwe tribe | Wikimedia Commons

… We lived in the Far East, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. We are related to all of those people there. The Wampanoags of Martha’s Vineyard, the Pequots, the Abenakis, the Wabanakis, the Miꞌkmaqs, they’re all our relatives. … That’s where we come from. And when we lived there, we were told to go to the place where the food grows upon the water. … That’s this.

[An oil spill here] would destroy life. Oil destroys life.

On climate change implications:

LaDuke: Enbridge has put in six pipelines [in Minnesota] already. And we feel like six is enough.

Our position is that … in a time of climate change, Enbridge shouldn’t get to up the size of its line from like 400,000 barrels a day to [760,000] barrels a day. In fact, they should start cleaning up their old mess before they can make a new mess, because we aren’t sure that they’re going to be able to clean up their old mess.

Enbridge, St. Ignace | Susan J. Demas

And this has been a bitter, bitter battle out here, because this is our water. And in the meantime, the tar sands is slowly, slowly shriveling. So the truth is that there is no way that Enbridge can justify the need for Line 3. And in a time of climate change, when California is on fire, there is no way to justify Line 3. There’s no way in the world you could justify that.

Make no mistake, this is a Canadian multinational corporation. And make no mistake that this is actually a function of a set of bad economic decisions by Canada. The fact is that the tar sands is the dirtiest oil in the world. And there is no way in hell that that should come out of the earth. Carbon belongs in the soil, not in the air. That’s the way the rule is in nature, and everybody knows you don’t want to pick a fight with Mother Nature because you ain’t gonna win.

On potential for clean energy jobs:

LaDuke: I’m a big supporter of the trade [unions], and I just want the trades to fix pipelines for people and not for oil companies. And I want the trades to be paid to clean up old pipeline messes by corporations who made those messes, before it gets into our groundwater. So … I see how a lot of good could be done.

Image by Sebastian Ganso from Pixabay

They don’t have a diversified economic plan for Canada, so they’ve been propping these [pipeline jobs] up. The Alberta economy is in shambles right now. And in the tar sands; they laid 10,000 people off in the spring. It’s crumbling. The tar sands economy is crumbling.

[Enbridge] could have diversified, but instead, they doubled down in oil. And apparently, they have never read a report on climate change.

You got aging oil infrastructure between Michigan and Minnesota, which is so flippin’ dangerous. But there [are jobs in] … renewable energy and they’ve got the skill set for it.

On how the Line 3 fight has affected Minnesotans and native people:

LaDuke: A good corporation would start showing some good faith, and instead what Enbridge has done is they’ve continued to persist and threaten people here.

A few dozen people were in downtown St. Paul the morning after the music concert at the Block (Line 3) Party outside the Public Utilities Commission, May 18, 2018 | Fibonacci Blue via Flickr CC BY 2.0

And people are scared.. … You drive into a gas station and someone says, ‘You got a lot of nerve being here’ to an Indian person. That’s what’s going on up here, is they’re feeding racism in the name of a pipeline expansion. It’s ugly.

They’re pitting neighbor against neighbor. My position is that this is not how we make a good world. It’s not only the oil; it’s the social impact of pipelines.

How Minnesota activists defeated an earlier Enbridge pipeline project, called the ‘Sandpiper’ pipeline:

Winona LaDuke | Wikimedia Commons

LaDuke: We defeated a pipeline here in 2016 that was called the Sandpiper … and when we defeated the Sandpiper, we had 300 miles of pipe that Enbridge couldn’t use here, 30-inch pipe. So my position was, we should just send that to Flint, Mich. [to replace the old pipes that contributed to the water crisis].

Well, the Sandpiper was a [375,000]-barrel-a-day fractural pipeline from North Dakota. Enbridge announced it in 2013 … and we didn’t really know much about pipelines. This isn’t like my gig, right? But we said, we better figure out what that is. [Pipelines were] out of sight and out of mind for all these years, and so nobody really thinks about them. It’s infrastructure, right, and I’m not opposed to infrastructure; I like infrastructure, but I want it to make sense. That’s all.

… They wanted to run [the Sandpiper] on the north side of our reservation [White Earth]. In this case, they clipped the reservation. That’s when we got involved. We researched and we figured out the risk, and we figured out the environmental impact and the carbon footprint of this pipeline. 

Kalamazoo oil spill cleanup | EPA via Flickr Public Domain

We figured out what Enbridge’s story was: the [2010 Michigan] Kalamazoo spill, obviously, the [1991 Minnesota] Grand Rapids spill. … And we were like no, that’s a bad idea. … A lot of non-Indian lakeshore owners, just like in northern Michigan, were pretty concerned about this. Because here, our water is our life. Not just native people, but everybody. 

… We’re fishing people; we live with our water. So people turned out, and tribes intervened. White Earth, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, and Mille Lacs initially intervened, and then I think Red Lake came in. Five tribes that are most affected by it.

And … in the meantime, this community group called Friends of the Headwaters of lakeshore owners, they filed a lawsuit to force an environmental impact statement on that 640,000-barrel-a-day pipeline. Because they thought that you should do an environmental impact statement on something that massive. 

And the court ordered the state of Minnesota to do that. … And then shortly thereafter, Enbridge announced the cancelation of that pipeline project – although they said it was essential, they said it was essential to them. Core. Essential. Needed it. But then Enbridge purchased 28% of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is a fractoral pipeline. And then that’s when it got ugly in North Dakota, because Enbridge had shored up the financing for the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

On how the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline spurred their own pipeline battle:

LaDuke: [DAPL] was the fractoral pipeline that, instead of going north of the city of Bismarck – which is 95% white – the pipeline went just north of the Standing Rock [Indian] Reservation. And that resulted in a siege in 2016. We followed Enbridge out there, and we saw the brutality at Standing Rock. 

Paul Graham Morris via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A lot of people from Michigan went to Standing Rock, too. We saw people getting shot for the pipeline. Water protectors getting shot, water protectors having their arms blown off. We saw it. And that’s wrong, that’s wrong. And [since] Enbridge financed [28% of] that … I hold them responsible for 28% of the injuries and 20% of the arrests.

Dogs assaulted our people; guard dogs attacked women. And I called Enbridge and said, you need to stop that, you need…a consultation process with that tribe, you need to ask that nothing is militarized. And they did nothing, so I hold them responsible.

So then they came back with Line 3, but we were all in Standing Rock. And we remembered what they did.

On Enbridge’s old Line 3, which runs across two Native American reservations [Fond du Lac and Leech Lake] and has a history of leaks:

LaDuke: Line 3 was built with such inferior material; it’s deteriorating the most quickly. But Lines 4 and 2 are not far behind.

Honor The Treaties chalk sidewalk message outside the MN Public Utilities Commission about Enbridge’s Line 3 in downtown St Paul, MN | Lorie Shaull via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Rather than cleaning up the mess in the area where they are, Enbridge wants to build a whole new corridor and make a new mess there.

[We say] decommission it. Decommission it, and clean it up. They say they can’t do that – well, if they can’t do it now, they aren’t going to do it in the future. That’s $2 billion…. It’s so expensive to clean it up; that’s why they don’t want to clean it up.

But if they can’t clean up that mess, it makes no sense to me that they should be allowed to make another mess. I’ve raised a lot of children. That’s kind of the rule.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).