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Opinion: Geese, pipelines and climate change

Winona LaDuke of environmental activist group Honor the Earth speaks to a gathering hosted by the Brainerd chapter of the League of Women Voters on Thursday. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

As the geese fly to the south, I am thinking how I would like them to return to the beauty of water and lakes again.

For that beauty, thousands of Minnesotans have spent five years trying to make the system work, asking the Public Utilities Commission to protect the interests of the state of Minnesota, the geese, and the Indigenous people by reducing our risk of pipeline spills and climate change exposure. We asked them to look out for the little guys, that's us. Then on Nov. 19, they did the exact opposite.

The PUC's morbidly short-sided, pro-oil industry actions came between the delivery of two new, dire climate change reports of the past six-plus weeks.

The first was from the United Nation on Oct. 9. The second, from the current U.S. administration, came out the Friday after their Nov. 23 decision.

The timing is telling about how far the rogue PUC is on the wrong side of climate and carbon science, the environment and the public good.

They also deployed some fuzzy math to assure Minnesota that Enbridge has enough insurance to cover any potential oil spills like the March 1991 spill, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota — to date the largest inland spill ever in the U.S. at 1.7 million gallons of oil into the Prairie River — and their Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010 that cost approximately $l.2 billion to "clean-up" — even though it's still not cleaned up.

Enbridge currently has an umbrella $940 million in insurance coverage — which covers dozens of North American pipelines and tank farms, including the six pipelines it owns in Minnesota.

Enbridge's deal with PUC says it has an available $1.4 billion insurance for a Line 3 leak, which assumes that there will be no other catastrophic leak elsewhere in their system — the world's longest and most complex crude oil and liquids transportation system, with approximately 17,018 miles of active crude pipeline across North America, including 8,624 miles of active pipe in the United States, and 8,394 miles of active pipe in Canada.

To be clear, a catastrophic spill in Line 5, under the Straits of Mackinac, would cost over $6 billion, according to Michigan officials. Simply stated, why are we allowing such a flimsy insurance policy?

Plus, how do we know they have it?

Minnesota's own Department of Commerce has prudently challenged Enbridge on the adequacy of their insurance coverage, for good reason. It's astonishing, but Enbridge is not the most financially robust organization. The corporation, although the third largest in Canada, was downgraded by Moody's financial analysts last December to just above junk bond status. That was then. Have you looked at their plummeting stock price lately this quarter?

Basically, the PUC just signed a deal for our water with a dodgy corporation.

Then there are the very real problems that come with adding more carbon to the atmosphere. We've already had the most expensive climate change disaster year in history, probably well over the $300 billion it cost last year. And, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Its prognosis for the planet is grim: We may have as little as 12 years to act on climate change — to slash global emissions 45 percent — to reach this target. Even Trump's climate report was grim.

Basically, without a spill, we still have a big problem. To be clear. "...How much pollution would this pipeline carry?" asked Professor John Abraham of the University of St. Thomas in The Guardian this summer: "... The emissions are equal to approximately 50 coal power plants. These are huge numbers, but more importantly, approval of pipelines like this make it more likely that all of the tar sands in Alberta will be extracted. If that happens, global temperatures will increase by approximately 0.65 degrees F. An astonishing number — approximately three decades worth of global warming." Who is going to pay for the insurance costs of all these disasters? And, how will the geese survive?

Honor the Earth estimated the cost of removing the carbon annually from the proposed Line 3 Pipeline — based on international standards at $1,000 per metric ton. Line 3 carbon removal would cost over $170 billion annually. Who pays for that?

It's tragic when the system fails us all and the people have to go to court and the streets to do what a public body failed to do to protect the public good.

(Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation and is executive director of Honor the Earth, a national Native American environmental foundation)

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