Activists have multiple reasons for trying to stop new fossil fuel pipelines from being built. For one thing, pipelines can and do leak. In 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline broke in Michigan, spilling more than 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. About 150 families had to move as a result, and the clean-up cost more than $1 billion. While this incident was especially bad, dozens of other serious pipeline incidents resulting in injuries and deaths are reported each year in the United States. The Kalamazoo River spill galvanized ranchers and other landowners to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which was first proposed in 2008 and meant to transport the same type of oil between the Alberta tar sands in Canada and the Gulf Coast of Texas. President Joe Biden canceled the pipeline’s permit on his first day in office and the project was canceled.
Often, pipelines cut across or pass very near land belonging to First Nations and Native American tribes. The Dakota Access pipeline transports crude oil under the Missouri River less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which relies on the river for drinking water. Construction of the pipeline also damaged important cultural sites and artifacts. Thousands of Indigenous people from dozens of tribes, as well as supporters from around the world, eventually gathered at Standing Rock to protest the pipeline. Now, activists are trying to stop Enbridge’s new Line 3 pipeline, which would cross hundreds of streams and wetlands in Minnesota, including the wild rice habitat that’s central to Anishinaabe culture. Protestors argue that the planned pipeline imperils the Ojibwe people’s treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on their ancestral land and waterways.
In addition, activists oppose these pipelines simply because building new fossil fuel infrastructure slows down the transition to clean energy (although people disagree over what, exactly, counts as clean energy). “This pipeline isn’t just about this place or the Anishinaabe or the wild rice,” protestor Joe Hill, who’s a member of the Seneca Nation, previously told Inside Climate News. “It’s about the world and what will happen if we don’t shut the tar sands down.”
Many experts do agree that to reach the Paris accord goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world needs to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Recently, the International Energy Agency—historically a conservative organization—concluded that for this to be possible, new oil and gas development must stop immediately.