Pipeline shutdown, oil industry lobbying highlight need for transition

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline due to a cyberattack led to surges in fuel prices across the eastern U.S. before it was brought back online on May 13. The attack on the largest oil pipeline in the country was the largest of its kind in history.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, Enbridge (the Canadian company that operates Line 3 and other pipelines in Minnesota) disregarded an order from Governor Gretchen Whitmer to cease operation of Line 5. Governor Whitmer had ordered Enbridge to shut down the aging pipeline because of the risk of a spill into the Great Lakes at the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge said its violation of the Governor’s authority came about because only the federal government has jurisdiction in the matter.

Taken separately, the Colonial Pipeline shutdown points to the need for stronger cybersecurity, while Enbridge’s defiance points to one pipeline company with contempt for decisions that don’t go its way. But taken together, they illustrate that the United States is hooked on fossil fuels to our detriment. We’ve written about the climate consequences many times, but it’s clear that our economic resilience, the proper functioning of our government, and the day-to-day routines of our lives are harmed by oil companies’ dominance.

Minnesota is not immune

Minnesota is not an oil-producing state, but as Michael Rockhold points out in an excellent commentary from Thursday, we are an oil-transporting and oil-refining state. Four Enbridge pipelines run through our state to Superior, Wisconsin, while others transport oil to the refineries in Rosemount and St. Paul Park. It’s worth a reminder that the increased volume of oil carried by the under-construction Line 3 would have a greater climate impact than every other emissions source in Minnesota combined if it is completed and operates for the life of its permit.

What do we get for our trouble? In 1991, Minnesota was rewarded with the largest inland oil spill in our country’s history near Grand Rapids. Line 3 would follow a new route that would put entirely new lands and waters in danger of a spill, which could devastate wild rice resources that are sacred and guaranteed by treaty to the Ojibwe people. Its construction has contributed to COVID spikes and human trafficking. Some counties get tax revenue from hosting these pipelines, but as Enbridge’s recent appeal of its taxes shows, counties can have the rug pulled out from under them and be left with a steep refund bill.

Why are companies that are such bad guests allowed to continue operating in Minnesota? As Rockhold writes, they have a strong lobbying presence that often overrules the interests of a majority of Minnesotans. That’s not just on pipeline issues – blocking public transit funding and energy-saving land use, expanding highway lanes despite evidence that it makes traffic worse, fighting against clean vehicle rules: these are all in fossil fuel companies’ playbooks.

By making it inconvenient for people to avoid using fossil fuels, the industry perpetuates demand for its products. Then, as ExxonMobil has for years, they blame individual consumers for the climate crisis. It’s a good thing when an individual or family finds that it can be easy and healthy to commute by bike or transit or installs solar panels on their home. But we need system-level changes to make those options available to all.

What’s the solution?

Even without the necessity of climate action, kicking our addiction to fossil fuels will make our communities safer, healthier, and more resilient. And while fossil fuel companies remain powerful, more and more people and lawmakers are refusing to buy into their false narratives, and we have a chance to win what we need.

One of the most important solutions is to make our communities easier to get around without a car. Building out public transit that is fast, reliable, and convenient can provide a great alternative. Rethinking planning issues like parking (see article below), land use, road design, and zoning will make us less dependent on cars to enjoy basic amenities.

Meanwhile, we need to electrify everything. The remaining vehicles on the road should shift more and more toward electric models, and natural gas power in homes should be replaced with electricity. Our electricity sector is becoming greener, and while some power companies are still trying to push gas plants and other toxic infrastructure on us, we know that they are not needed for our future.

To be fair, an electrical grid isn’t invulnerable, and we need to invest in upgrades to make our grid more resilient to threats like extreme weather and cyberattacks. But when solar and wind are spread out among many locations and in many generation sizes, it creates a system much more resilient than one in which a single end-to-end pipeline can shut down an entire region. Electricity, unlike gasoline, can be safely generated in individual homes. And you’ll never hear about a wind turbine or a solar panel having a “spill.”

Indeed, oil spills can and should be made a thing of the past. Line 3, Line 5, and eventually all fuel pipelines should be safely decommissioned, and no new ones should be permitted. They won’t be needed in the economy we’re going to create.

We know that a majority of Minnesotans want to live in a clean energy-powered, climate-friendly state. Fossil fuel companies have told us otherwise for far too long. Time for us to stop buying it.

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