Minnesota court deals setback to oil pipeline opposed by tribes

Tribal members gathered wild rice at Hole In the Day Lake in Minnesota as an exercise of their treaty rights. Photo from Facebook / Honor the Earth

Tribal leaders and activists in Minnesota declared victory on Monday after an appeals court dealt a setback to an oil pipeline that would cross treaty territory.

In a unanimous decision, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission acted prematurely by granting a "certificate of need" to the $2.6 billion Sandpiper crude oil pipeline. The ruling means the state must prepare an environmental impact statement before moving forward with a controversial project that tribes believe will harm their treaty-protected wild rice areas.

“The pipeline is not dead, but this means it will not be shoved down our throats without a complete review of the environmental impacts,” Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said in a press release. “This shows what Native people can accomplish when we stick together. Your voices matter. This is a good day.”

Winona LaDuke, the founder of Honor The Earth, also hailed the ruling as a "victory." The group called on the state commission to develop a plan to consult tribes that will be affected by the route of the 300-mile pipeline.

A map of the Sandpiper pipeline route through treaty lands in Minnesota. Larger Image

"It is good to finally have some intervention," the group said on its website.

The decision comes as tribal members clash with the state with respect to the 1855 Treaty with the Chippewa. Late last month, the Department of National Resources issued citations to a handful of activists who asserted their right to gather rice at off-reservation areas.

The Sandpiper route crosses these areas and tribal leaders and members fear a spill would harm a food described by the Ojibwe people as a gift from the Creator.

“We have to stand together and use our treaty rights to protect our environment from the state of Minnesota PUC giving the green light to crude oil pipelines through our wild rice lakes and rivers across the 1855 ceded territory,” said Steven “Punky” Clark, the vice chair of the 1855 Treaty Authority, a group that organized last month's protests.

Ojibwe men harvesting wild rice, ca. 1925. Photo from Minnesota Historical Society

In June, the PUC granted a certificate of need for the the Sandpiper. The pipeline was declared to be in the "public interest" even as calls for hearings on or near reservations along the route were rejected.

Enbridge Energy, the Canadian company pushing for the project, plans to use the pipeline to transport oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota through Minnesota and to an existing terminal in Wisconsin. The entire length runs about 616 miles in all three states.

According to the company, the Minnesota portion of the pipeline is capable of carrying 375,000 barrels of oil per day. A spill could wreak havoc on the environment, an issue that tribes and other groups hope to address as the PUC takes another look at the project.

In addition to crossing treaty territory, the pipeline touches the headwaters of the Mississippi River. A group called Friends of the Headwaters, which filed the lawsuit that led to yesterday's decision, has proposed an alternate route to avoid these sensitive areas.

Winona LaDuke, the founder of Honor The Earth, testifies at a public hearing held by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe on June 5, 2015. The tribe called the hearing after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ignored requests for more consultation about the Sandpiper pipeline. Photo from Facebook

"We made the environmental argument, we made the science argument, we made the legal argument and we made the economic argument," Richard Smith, the group's president said. "The PUC overlooked the merits of our case. We are grateful the court heard us."

The state of North Dakota has already approved that portion of the pipeline. Enbridge had been hoping to start construction next year.

"We will evaluate our options for next steps with this important project," Enbridge said in a statement on Monday.

Minnesota Court of Appeals Decision:
In the Matter of the Application of North Dakota Pipeline Company LLC for a Certificate of Need for the Sandpiper Pipeline Project in Minnesota (September 14, 2015)

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