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Tribal dissidents fighting Enbridge oil pipeline in northern Minnesota

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Saying the environmental damage to their native brothers' land in Canada is too great, tribal dissidents on two Minnesota Indian reservations are battling a major new oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

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Members of both the Fond du Lac and Leech Lake bands of Ojibwe are starting a petition drive for tribal referendums on whether Enbridge Energy Corp. should be allowed to build an oil pipeline across both reservations. They also are threatening legal action within tribal courts.

The groups are scheduled to announce their plans Tuesday in Duluth.

"There's a petition process in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribes constitution, so there's an avenue in place for this," said Marty Cobenais, spokesman for the Indigenous Environmental Network in Bemidji. "We're also filing injunctions in tribal court against any pipeline construction until the people can vote on this."

The Enbridge Alberta Clipper pipeline from Canada to Superior already has been approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and is awaiting final approval by the U.S. State Department.

Both tribal councils already have approved the pipeline crossing the reservations, with Enbridge agreeing to pay each tribe substantial lease fees for the rights of way.

But opponents of the pipeline say the oil is among the dirtiest in the world and that mining it from tar sands is damaging the environment for native tribes in Canada. It's blamed for leaving scarred landscapes and polluted waters in northern Alberta. Tar sand oil also is high in carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and requires more energy to process, opponents say. They also claim the pipeline will harm wetlands in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The opposition includes the Indigenous Environmental Network, American Indian Movement and farmers and landowners on reservation and private land, among them some owners of property where the pipeline is proposed to cross.

Earlier this year the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy filed multiple lawsuits against the pipeline for many of the same reasons, charging violations of Minnesota environmental policy. Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the group, said Friday those suits still are active.

The opponents are working to petition Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to deny approval of the pipeline. The State Department is the lead authority because the pipeline crosses an international border.

The border crossing permit that Clinton must issue for the pipeline to proceed is usually only a bureaucratic formality. But it may loom larger with vocal Indian opposition. The permit is essentially the last major step for the company before it can build and use the pipeline.

"We have all the permits and route authority in place. We have final approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission," said Denise Hamsher, Enbridge spokeswoman. Hamsher said Enbridge already has started making payments to the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac governments.

The pipeline would carry about 450,000 barrels of oil, or 19 million gallons, per day. That would be in addition to the 1.6 million barrels per day the company already moves through an existing pipeline along the same route.

"Tar sands oil already is moving through the reservations every day; this isn't going to be anything new," Hamsher noted.

The $1.2 billion U.S. segment of the pipeline is part of an $8 billion system expansion that will bring oil from Alberta into the U.S., 285 miles across Minnesota and into Wisconsin. From Superior, the oil could either be refined at the Murphy Oil facility or piped another 450 miles to Illinois.

A federal Environmental Impact Statement was approved June 5 and becomes final July 6, ending any public input.

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