The pipeline company Enbridge is poised to begin construction of its controversial Line 3 in northern Minnesota at the end of the month, after state agencies green-lit key permits in mid-November and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers followed with its own approval this week. The plan has the potential to draw together thousands of temporary workers from across the U.S. and trigger a mass protest movement in a state that currently has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the nation.

Project opponents are anticipating severe police and private security responses to protests, despite an attempt by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to formally bar Enbridge from “engaging in counterinsurgency tactics or misinformation campaigns designed to interfere with the public’s legal exercise of constitutional rights.” The language, part of a series of preconditions put forth by the Public Utilities Commission in advance of the project’s approval, is a direct response to concerns that Enbridge Line 3 opponents will see a security crackdown as sweeping as the one near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016, during protests against the Dakota Access pipeline.

Line 3 opponents are not convinced by the utilities commission’s agreements and say they are already confronting police and private security tactics similar to those at Standing Rock.

Winona LaDuke speaks out against the Line 3 decision, Thursday, June 28, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota regulators approved Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3 oil pipeline, angering opponents who say the project threatens pristine areas and have vowed Standing Rock-style protests, if needed to block it. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

Winona LaDuke speaks out against Enbridge Line 3 in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 28, 2018.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/AP

“How do they enforce that? Who’s in charge of the flying monkeys?” asked Winona LaDuke, comparing Enbridge’s personnel to the Wicked Witch of the West’s primate minions in “The Wizard of Oz.” “We would find it very surprising that they would have any control.”

LaDuke, an Anishinaabe environmental justice activist and former Green Party vice presidential candidate, has spent years fighting Enbridge Line 3. Asked how she would define counterinsurgency, LaDuke said bluntly, “We’ve got drones over our property.” She continued, “It starts with surveillance, it expands to the use of informants, entrapment, falsifying situations, and getting people charged with things they should not be charged with. It involves bullying and intimidating tribal members and nontribal members.” And she said much of that has already begun in northern Minnesota.

“It starts with surveillance, it expands to the use of informants, entrapment, falsifying situations, and getting people charged with things they should not be charged with.”

“Enbridge will not tolerate human rights abuses and will not engage or be complicit in any activity that solicits or encourages human rights abuse,” company spokesperson Juli Kellner told The Intercept. “As a company, we recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully.”

Will Seuffert, a spokesperson for the Public Utilities Commission, confirmed that “counterinsurgency tactic” and “misinformation campaign” are undefined by the agency. He said that the person in charge of monitoring Enbridge for such tactics is Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief who will serve as the public safety liaison for the project. “The Commission respects the first amendment rights of the public, and the permit includes several provisions that are intended to support them,” he said.

The Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline would carry Canadian tar sands oil, one of the most polluting fossil fuels in the world, to the shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin, traveling on its way through the territory of the Indigenous Anishinaabe people, under more than 212 streams and impacting 730 acres of wetlands.

In anticipation of the replacement project, since the summer of 2018, members of the anti-pipeline Giniw Collective have occupied a small camp 200 yards from where the pipeline is set to be built. The camp has served as a space to practice Anishinaabe culture, with a garden and sweat lodge, but also as a site to train for direct action protests.

Line 3 has actually been operating for more than 50 years but is only able to run at about half capacity because of its age. Rather than retiring a pipeline that is on its way to being obsolete — as policymakers wake up to the severity of the climate crisis and energy markets turn away from fossil fuels — Enbridge, with the support of government regulators, is instead spending $7.5 billion to replace it.

In addition to the climate risk, opponents point to the likelihood that a pipeline leak could damage lakes where wild rice is harvested, a staple considered sacred by the Anishinaabe. If construction begins as planned, the Giniw camp will be a base for pipeline resistance. Already, project opponents have participated in “lockdowns” to Enbridge equipment to slow preparations for building.

Kellner, the Enbridge spokesperson, said the company would not tolerate actions like lockdowns. “Criminal acts of sabotage and tampering, vandalism, trespassing and occupation of pipeline facilities are not peaceful, and have the potential to cause serious harm — not only to the perpetrators, but also to nearby communities, the environment, landowners and the employees who maintain these facilities,” she said. “We are committed to ongoing engagement and dialogue with all stakeholders and hope all sides will join in a dialogue on the issues and choose collaboration over confrontation.”

LaDuke noted that she and other Indigenous-led project opponents already spent seven years attempting to stop the pipeline through public hearings and other legal means and have been left with few options for protecting their land and water.

FILE - In this June 29, 2018 file photo, a No Trespassing sign is visible at a Enbridge Energy pipeline drilling pad along a rail line that traces the Minnesota-Wisconsin border south of Jay Cooke State Park in Minnesota. Gov. Tim Walz says his administration will continue to appeal a regulatory commission's approval of Enbridge Energy's plan to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline. The commission approved the project last summer, but former Gov. Mark Dayton's Department of Commerce appealed that decision, as did several environmental and tribal groups. An appeals court decision last week sent the challenges back to the commission for further proceedings. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

A “No Trespassing” sign is visible at an Enbridge pipeline drilling pad along a rail line that traces the Minnesota-Wisconsin border south of Jay Cooke State Park in Minnesota, on June 29, 2018.

Photo: Jim Mone/AP

Minnesota officials have taken note of the incipient resistance and have been monitoring Line 3 opponents since 2017. The authorities are collaborating with Enbridge to manage the situation. Members of the Giniw Collective captured images in June 2019 of a law enforcement officer unloading a white Enbridge pickup truck full of tools, including bolt cutters and saws.

Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes confirmed that the office accepted the donation from Enbridge and used the tools to cut loose pipeline opponents who had locked themselves to the company’s equipment. “They paid for tools that we needed and a little bit of equipment we needed one day. I wasn’t going to tell them no,” he said. “I’d much rather see the cost coming from them rather than all the taxpayers.”

Asked to describe how else the office works with Enbridge, Aukes replied, “I don’t know that we work with them — we certainly don’t work for them.”

In the autumn of 2019, Enbridge purchased the property adjacent to the camp. According to Tara Houska, a founder of the Giniw Collective, a white truck typically parks on the Enbridge property whenever trainings are scheduled at the camp, accompanied by a small plane that occasionally soars overhead. For more than a year and a half, members have noticed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol drones flying over camp every couple months, and a private drone has hovered low over their garden. A report by Gizmodo identified five CBP drone flight paths between this past February and June in areas linked to pipeline activity. (Enbridge said the company “does not use drones for security purposes, nor for routine pipeline monitoring.”)

Aukes said that his office is not involved in any aerial activity related to pipeline opposition. But pipeline opponents noted that sheriff’s officials have visited the camp or driven slowly by.

Houska, who is Anishinaabe, said the surveillance goes beyond just the camp. “When you walk in the grocery store of a town of 200 people, and there’s some guy taking a picture of you with a cellphone, that’s really obvious,” she said.

It’s not so different from what she saw four years ago, at resistance camps established near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Security forces set up a system of intensive surveillance that included aerial monitoring of resistance camps and the use of infiltrators pretending to be pipeline opponents. At the front lines of the protests, police and private security deployed dogs, tear gas, and water hoses in below-freezing temperatures. When the camps cleared out, after months of occupation, the state of North Dakota was left with a huge unpaid bill for the massive police response they’d used to defend the pipeline construction.

Minnesota officials have repeatedly accepted training and advice from public safety leaders from neighboring North Dakota who were involved in the repressive response at Standing Rock.

Dakota Access protestors stand their ground on the bridge between Oceti Sakowin Camp and County Road 134 in North Dakota on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016 while being sprayed with water cannons and tear gas - paintballs, rubber bullets, and sound cannons were also used.  The protestors build a fire to stay warm in 26 degree weather while also being soaked by police. (Cassi Alexandra for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Dakota Access protestors stand their ground while being sprayed with water cannons and tear gas on the bridge between Oceti Sakowin Camp and County Road 134 in North Dakota on Nov. 20, 2016.

Photo: Cassi Alexandra/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Minnesota’s government wants neither the bad press nor the huge expense associated with an aggressive law enforcement and private security crackdown. So in 2018, the utilities commission agreed to approve the pipeline only if Enbridge agreed to a series of conditions regarding its safety and security response.

Rather than preventing an overly close collaboration between the pipeline company and law enforcement, the agreement seems to have formalized coordination. In line with the requirements of the permit, Enbridge put together mandated public safety and security plans for each county through which the pipeline is to pass, which have already been approved by 15 local sheriffs — but are not available for the public to review.

“I’ve been followed for hundreds of miles along the line by different trucks. I don’t know if that’s counterinsurgency, but it’s certainly surveillance.”

Meanwhile, Enbridge will be paying directly, in advance, for law enforcement to police its opposition. Enbridge has deposited an initial $250,000 into a “Public Safety Escrow Trust Account” that will then be distributed to public safety and social services agencies along the pipeline route, according to approvals by Harrington and a separate Escrow Account Manager, who has not yet been appointed. Harrington will consult with local sheriff’s offices and other agencies to help determine how much additional money Enbridge should deposit.

A new provision added to the permit at the end of October says the escrow account “may not be used to reimburse expenses for equipment other than personal protective gear for public safety personnel.” It was a response to “concerns about the type of equipment that might be used to ensure peace and safety,” said a filing explaining the modification. The permit does not appear to prevent sheriff’s offices from accepting separate equipment donations such as the one in Hubbard County.

Enbridge spokesperson Kellner confirmed, “While Enbridge does have a grant program that funds first responder requests for training and safety equipment, this purchase was not part of that program.”

Sheriff Aukes said his office has not been able to access any funds from the escrow account so far and that policing the pipeline movement has already been “a huge use of our resources.” He said that pipeline funding or donations will not mean special treatment for Enbridge. “We simply don’t let it interfere,” he said.

However, the utilities commission’s moves did little to eliminate the risk of blurring the lines between public law enforcement obligations, which include protecting First Amendment rights, and the pipeline’s private interests, which include building the pipeline with as little disruption as possible, pipeline opponents said.

Houska pointed out, for instance, that the language barring counterinsurgency tactics is vague. “Does that mean they’re saying Enbridge can’t have security forces and send informants into camps?” she asked. “Does that mean they can’t categorize us as jihadists?” As the Intercept has reported, pipeline security did both during the Standing Rock movement and explicitly framed its operation as “counterinsurgency.”

Regardless of the agreement, all indications point to significant monitoring of pipeline opponents. “I’ve been followed for hundreds of miles along the line by different trucks,” Houska said. “I don’t know if that’s counterinsurgency, but it’s certainly surveillance.”

Opponents are still hopeful that Minnesota public health officials will intervene to stop construction due to Covid-19 concerns or that a judge will halt the project until legal challenges are resolved.

“If our own Democratic governor isn’t willing to stand up for our environment, then I guess we’ll turn to Washington,” Houska said. She said she’d ask President-elect Joe Biden to examine the environmental impacts of the Line 3 replacement. “It is obvious on its face that this does not meet emissions standards, this does not meet our climate goals,” she said. “This is an affront to any sort of move toward just transition.”