As the Canadian oil pipeline company Enbridge awaited its final permits last summer to begin construction on the Line 3 tar sands oil transport project, Minnesota sheriff’s offices along the route fretted. With an Anishinaabe-led movement pledging to carry out nonviolent blockades and demonstrations to prevent the pipeline’s construction, local police worried they’d be stuck with the costs of policing and wanted Enbridge to pay instead.
As part of its permit to build Line 3, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, created a special Enbridge-funded account that public safety officials could use to pay for policing Enbridge’s political opponents. The police were concerned about who state officials would hire to decide which invoices to pay or reject.
Last June, Kanabec County Sheriff Brian Smith wrote an email to other sheriffs along the pipeline route. “I think we need to let the PUC know that the person selected needs to be someone that we also agree upon,” Smith wrote. “Not a member of the PUC, not a state, county or federal employee, but someone that has an understanding of rioting and MFF operations” — referring to mobile field force operations, or anti-riot policing.
In response, Enbridge offered reassurances, according to other police on the email chain. “I had a discussion with Troy Kirby (Enbridge Chief of Security) this morning, and expressed concern over that position and the escrow account,” Aitkin County Sheriff Daniel Guida replied. “He indicated they have some influence on the hiring of that positon [sic] and he would be involved to ensure we are taken care of, one way or another.”
“They are being incentivized to carry out the goals of a foreign corporation, and they’re being taken care of for doing it.”
The exchange between the sheriffs is an example of the public-private collaborations between law enforcement and fossil fuel companies that have raised alarms for civil rights advocates and environmental activists across the U.S. Oil, gas, and pipeline corporations have forged a range of creative strategies for funding the police who respond to their political opponents, from paying elected constables for work as private security to creating an entire police unit dedicated to protecting infrastructure. Other industries have found ways to route money to police, but corporate law enforcement funding related to pipeline projects is among the most pervasive. Civil liberties advocates say the corporate cash raises troubling questions about private influence over the public institution of policing, noting that growing anti-pipeline protest movements have been met by heavy-handed police tactics.
With opposition to the Line 3 pipeline mounting, public records obtained by The Intercept shed new light on the depths of the cooperation between Enbridge and public safety officials in Minnesota — especially law enforcement agencies along the route. “They are being incentivized to carry out the goals of a foreign corporation, and they’re being taken care of for doing it,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s Center for Protest Law and Litigation, which is representing Line 3 pipeline opponents. She said the dynamic was on view in the sheriff’s description of Enbridge influence over the escrow account hire: “That communication is defining of the relationship between the Enbridge corporation and law enforcement in Northern Minnesota.”
Guida, the Aitkin County sheriff, told The Intercept that, at the time of the email, sheriffs were concerned the account liaison appointment was taking too long and believed Kirby, the Enbridge security head, could speed up the process. Asked for comment, Enbridge directed questions about the account to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. In a statement, PUC spokesperson Will Seuffert said, “Enbridge had no input into the Escrow Account Manager selection.” The panel that made the appointment included two commission staff members and one from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety who worked “without any involvement from Enbridge, or any other parties,” he said.
In February, Richard Hart, a former official at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and a former deputy chief of police in Bloomington, Minnesota, was hired for the role. So far, he has approved more than $900,000 in Enbridge funding for law enforcement agencies and other public safety institutions.
For Indigenous water protectors, the cooperation between law enforcement and pipeline companies is part of a long history of public security forces being leveraged against Native tribes for private gain, going back to the violent westward expansion of the United States. Tania Aubid, an anti-Line 3 organizer and a member of the Rice Lake Band, which is part of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said, “It’s keeping on with the Indian Wars.”
Chief among the law enforcement officers’ concerns about the escrow account, according to emails obtained through public records requests, was a rule in the Line 3 permit limiting how the funds can be used. Sheriff’s offices can use the account to pay for any public safety services “provided in and about the construction site as a direct result of the construction and removal of the pipeline,” but they cannot use it to pay for equipment, unless it’s personal protective gear.
It was widely understood — and a particular source of frustration — that so-called less-lethal munitions, such as tear gas, would not be reimbursed through the account. “We do know for absolute certain that munitions will NOT be an allowable expense,” noted Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake in a November 19 email to fellow members of the Northern Lights Task Force, a coalition of law enforcement and public safety officials set up primarily to respond to anti-pipeline demonstrations.
“So, we can get reimbursed for trafficking but not equipment needed to protect our community’s? [sic]” wrote Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch a few days later, in reply to an email that said Enbridge funds could be used to address an expected increase in human trafficking related to the arrival of hundreds of temporary workers.
The funding gap for less-lethal munitions was important enough that law enforcement officials raised it with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. In early October, Walz set up a phone call with the sheriffs along the Line 3 route. Ahead of the calls, Lake, the Carlton County sheriff, distributed a handful of talking points to the group. Among them was the problem of tear gas funding.
“One identified resource we know that will aid in response should the protests become violent and out of control is the use of less lethal munitions such as gas,” the talking points said. “We have been told by the PUC that this absolutely will not be an allowable expense for reimbursement through the Public Safety Escrow Account. Enbridge has said they would not directly reimburse this expense as they have put funds aside into the Public Safety Escrow Account already to be utilized to reimburse public safety for response.”
It continues, “If counties along the pipeline route face mass crowds of violent protests that are prolonged events, the small resources of munitions that we may have will be very quickly depleted. Without these less lethal options, there is an incredibly increased risk for responders, protestors, and the community as a whole.”
The governor apparently offered words of comfort. “Dave’s assessment is that it went very well and he believes that the Governor will figure out the funding piece and the munitions,” Lake said in an email after the call, referring to Dave Olmstead, a retired Bloomington police commander who serves as Minnesota’s special events preparedness coordinator for Line 3, overseeing the public safety response to the project. “It sounds like his staff was already trying to line up a meeting internally for them to discuss it.”
A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not answer a question about the phone call and directed all queries about state funding to the Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to a request for comment. Guida told The Intercept that his department has received no additional funding from the state to pay for less-lethal weapons.
Regardless of what funding the governor arranged, less-lethal weapons, including tear gas, are baked into law enforcement’s plans for Line 3.
A Northern Lights Task Force document laying out the overarching police strategy for Line 3 protests, also obtained through a public information request, repeatedly notes the importance of protecting free speech rights, urging officers to “make reasonable efforts to employ ‘non-arrest’ methods of crowd management” and to target leaders and agitators, rather than detaining people en masse.
If targeted arrests fail to disperse a group, according to the document, then chemical weapons are allowed, including smoke, pepper spray, or a combination of the two, followed by longer-range pepper spray, pepper blast balls, and tear gas. Impact munitions, firearms-fired projectiles in the less-lethal category like sponge rounds, marking rounds, and pepper spray-tipped rounds can only be targeted at individuals whose actions put others in danger of injury. The use of dogs requires permission from local law enforcement commanders.
Guida justified planning for the use of less-lethal munitions by comparing the Line 3 opposition to the movement against the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. “It seemed that without less than lethal munitions, when they lost control, that things would have continued to spiral out of control,” Guida said.
Verheyden-Hilliard is part of the legal team representing Dakota Access pipeline opponents in a class-action civil rights lawsuit against law enforcement officials in North Dakota, including a woman who lost vision in one eye after police shot her in the face with a tear gas canister. “If we want to look at what happened with DAPL, I think that’s a good idea,” she said. “The lesson we can learn from there is in fact that equipping all these local sheriffs with these very powerful and very indiscriminate and very dangerous weapons causes substantial injury and harm to people.”
None of the weapons have yet been deployed, but counties have stocked up. Beltrami County, which is located near but not on the pipeline route, even submitted an invoice requesting reimbursement from the Enbridge-funded escrow account for more than $10,000 in less-lethal weapons, including batons, pepper spray, impact munitions, and tear gas grenades, despite the restriction.
Hart rejected those requests but approved $911,060 in other reimbursements, including approximately $170,00 worth of equipment: mostly tactical and crowd control gear, as well as miscellaneous items. Reimbursements, for example, were made for port-a-potty rentals, which are considered personal protective equipment because, according to Hart, “the toilets protect jail employees from biological exposure during jail overcrowding.” Among other approved “personal protective equipment” are baton stops, which attach a baton to officers’ duty belts, and gas masks, which protect officers from the tear gas they deploy.
Shanai Matteson, an opponent of the Line 3 who is from Guida’s county, said it feels inevitable that tear gas and other munitions will be used. “What you practice for, and the mindset you have, is what you bring. They’re soldiering up to protect a private company’s assets, so what do we think is going to happen?” Matteson said. “Stopping work on a project that’s destroying the place that we live is not the same as violence that would warrant this kind of a response.”