When discussing the latest controversies regarding climate change, you have to talk about Line 3. Line 3 was a pipeline built in the early 1960s from the oil fields in southern Canada down through Minnesota, transporting hundreds of millions of barrels of crude oil to the states each year. Over the years, the pipeline corroded significantly, cutting its carrying capacity in half. With the more recent push to extract oil from the tar sands, a replacement project was completed in October of 2021, over the objections of Indigenous people and environmentalists. The outcome of this distinctly political and humanitarian issue is reflective of an age-old conflict in American history surrounding our treatment of the environment. There are always short-term benefits to projects such as this one. The pipeline created 4,200 jobs during construction. It also stimulated economic growth in the towns near where the pipeline was built, especially for hotels and restaurants that serviced these workers. There is also the national demand for oil that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Of course, these seemingly sound reasons for continued development are not without a cost. Nobody knows this better than Indigenous people who live in the area where the pipeline is being built. These tribes are worried about the sheer volume of oil that is passing through the pipeline daily and the risk of polluting the groundwater around it. The United States’ largest crude oil spill actually occurred along the old Line 3 pipeline in 1991, and there have been several major spills since then. This concern was brought up to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in late 2020, which decided to allow the project to continue. In January 2021, construction on the pipeline breached an aquifer, releasing millions of gallons of water and severely damaging surrounding wetlands, but Enbridge failed to report this to the state until June. In response, opponents of the pipeline protested the project both at residences of government officials and on the construction sites themselves. Many of these protesters have been arrested and still await trial.
These are the immediate concerns of the Indigenous people. But, the core of the issue is one that has been in conflict with American values for many centuries. Native Americans widely practice concepts similar to what some now call earth jurisprudence, a philosophy that acknowledges that our species is only one part of a larger community that we call Earth, and that we are equally vulnerable to Earth’s changes as any other species. Indigenous people honored this philosophy in every aspect of their lives and continue to this day. They farm sustainably, hunt only for what is needed, and limit energy consumption to natural resources. Native Americans consider themselves to be one with the land they inhabit, and treat their environment as the delicate ecosystems that they are.
The Indigenous philosophy and practices were challenged by the European colonists from the day that they arrived on American soil. To them, all that lay before them was theirs to claim, including the lands and resources of the Indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years. This perception of the world is a core tenet to what has become the exploit-and-extract mindset, which rationalizes our continued willingness to develop on fragile ecosystems, waste natural resources, and burn fossil fuels that pollute the Earth. Despite the worsening effects of climate change, the exploit-and-extract mentality persists well into the 21st century. For Indigenous people across the United States, this is what makes the construction of Line 3 so devastating.
We’ve known for a long time now that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change, and yet we continue to embrace it as our country’s major supplier of energy. The environmental cost of this project is expected to grow to $287 billion over the next 30 years, but Indigenous people didn’t need a number to know that it was going to have serious consequences. Unfortunately, the people who bear the environmental damages of this pipeline will not be the ones who profit from it — and the climate impacts will harm people around the world.
Herein lies what may be the greatest barrier to tackling climate change — accountability. Now, more than ever, the rights of nature need to be established so that our environment is protected from exploitation. This is more simple on a local level than a global scale. How do we change an entire nation’s mode of energy consumption when the consequences of the current system are not visible? We can explain it in textbooks or articles online, but, at the end of the day, people tend to focus on what is in front of them. In the coming decades, proper exposure to the philosophies and challenges of Native Americans will be exceedingly important for drawing connections between climate change and the environment. Indigenous people have always had the right solutions for preventing climate change.
Now, it is time to listen.
Nate Stratton is a Junior at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. His passions include acting and incorporating climate change education into the theater canon.