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Native American protests against oil pipeline projects snowball across USA

10 January 2017

A Native American tribe in Wisconsin is calling for 12 miles of pipeline to be removed from its reservation after 64 years of operation, with tribe members saying they want to protect their land and water from oil spills. This is one of an increasing number of protests against pipelines by aboriginal groups and seems likely to be an increasing headache for operators in 2017 and beyond.

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On January 4, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's tribal council approved a resolution refusing to renew easements for 11 parcels of land along a section of Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline crossing the tribe’s reservation. Line 5 carries 540,000 barrels per day of light crude and natural gas liquids 645 miles between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario.

The resolution also calls for decommissioning the pipeline and removing it from the tribe's reservation along the shores of Lake Superior in far northern Wisconsin. The resolution also directs tribal staff to prepare recycling, disposal and surface restoration work that would come with removal.

Calgary-based Enbridge said in a statement that the resolution was a surprise, as the company had been negotiating renewal of easements for the last three years. The easements for the majority of the remaining parcels on Bad River tribal land extend until 2043 or rest in perpetuity. It added that it was too soon to speculate on what authority the tribe may have over this matter.

Enbridge said there had never been a spill on the Bad River reservation, but a tribal spokesman said the tribe believed it was only a matter of time until the ageing pipeline ruptures. No amount of compensation or negotiation would change this position, he said.

"As many other communities have experienced, even a minor spill could prove to be disastrous for our people," Bad River Tribal Chairman Robert Blanchard said in a news release, adding the band would reach out to federal, state and local officials to evaluate how to remove Line 5.

This comes after protests in North Dakota over Energy Transfer Partners' plans to build a section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL) under a Missouri River reservoir. The Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux are challenging the pipeline's permits at numerous water crossings and secured a stay of execution when in December the Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement needed to drill under Lake Oahe.

But the fight against DAPL is not over. Donald Trump is an investor in the company and a supporter of the project, and has expressed support for other new oil pipeline projects.

Nevertheless, DAPL has galvanised Native American opposition in other parts of the country.

According to The Guardian, a protest camp has sprung up at Two Rivers near Marfa, Texas, in opposition to the Trans-Pecos pipeline, a 148-mile project designed to transport fracked natural gas through the Big Bend region to Mexico.

"We’re going to follow the same model as Standing Rock,” said Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations and an organiser at the Two Rivers camp. “This is a huge historical moment for environmental issues, for protecting our water, protecting our land, protecting sacred sites and protecting treaties."

And indigenous activists involved with Standing Rock have also recently turned their attention to environmental battles in a number of other states, including Minnesota, Florida, Hawaii, Washington and Wyoming.

Other protests include one by the Ramapough Lenape tribe in Mahwah, New Jersey, which set up a camp in early January to stop Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings installing two parallel 170-mile pipelines between Albany, New York, and  Linden, New Jersey. 

The Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline says the lines and associated infrastructure would transport millions of gallons of crude oil across 11 counties in NJ and NY, threatening a number of environmentally fragile areas and water sources.

Enbridge's Line 5 has also been a focus of protest in Michigan. Environmentalists fear a portion of pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, which link Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, could rupture and cause catastrophic damage to the Great Lakes.

Enbridge said it had maintained and operated Line 5 safely for more than 60 years, with five yearly checks for corrosion and other problems. The company also checks the section that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac every two years.

The action against Line 5 underlines how environmental and aboriginal resistance to energy infrastructure is evolving. Up until now, protests have centred on new pipelines or extensions to existing ones, like at Standing Rock or Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain project. This is thought to be the first time a tribal group has called for the removal of an existing pipeline.


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