A climate catastrophe

Line 3 quick facts
  • The oil from Line 3 will add more carbon to the atmosphere every year than the entire state of Minnesota emitted in 2016.
  • Oil made from tar sands contributes up to 35% more greenhouse gas emissions than standard oil.
  • Tar sands oil is more expensive to produce than other oils, making it one of the last fossil fuel sources to become commercially viable, and likely the first to be eliminated as the world transitions away from fossil fuel energy sources.
  • Minnesota’s refineries are already operating at peak capacity, meaning Minnesota can’t make use of Line 3’s increased supply.
    Enbridge is responsible for the two largest inland oil spills in American history.
  • Line 3 is all risk and no reward, threatening lasting environmental damage with no long-term benefit to Minnesota. While coverage of Line 3 turns to the conflict between Enbridge and pipeline opponents, it’s important not to forget the facts of the case. Minnesota doesn’t need more oil, and we certainly don’t need this oil.
All risk

The “oil” Line 3 is slated to carry is a loser by all standards; among both the dirtiest (1), and the most expensive oil in the world (2). Line 3’s journey begins in Alberta’s tar sands, not with oil, but with tar-like bitumen mixed in with the dirt. Extracting the bitumen is costly, labor intensive and an environmental disaster. To produce a single barrel of usable oil takes two tons of sand (3), and creates a barrel and a half of a toxic byproduct called tailings (4) which are left in open pools to poison wildlife and leech into the groundwater, causing cancer (5). By now these tailing pools have likely grown to an area of 115 square miles, the size of Minneapolis and Saint Paul combined(6). From start to finish, producing a single gallon of gasoline from tar sands consumes nearly six gallons of freshwater, three times more than conventional oil (7), and the extraction process alone contributes more air pollution than Canada’s largest city, Toronto(8).

Once extracted, the tar must be mixed with toxic chemicals and conventional oil before it is fluid enough to pipe out. When spilled, this mixture of diluted bitumen, or “dilbit”, is even more catastrophic for the environment than conventional oil. Unlike oil it sinks in water, drastically complicating cleanup efforts, while chemical additives like carcinogenic benzene can evaporate into the air (9). Canada has declined to transport dilbit through its own waters, with two major plans for pipelines linking to export terminals on Canada’s coasts canceled due to environmental concerns, economic infeasibility, and revelations of collusion between federal regulators and company lobbyists (10). Now Enbridge hopes that Minnesota will take on the risk that Canada declined and trust Enbridge in spite of its history.

All pipelines leak or spill. When Line 3 ruptured in 1992 in Grand Rapids, Minn., it sprayed more than 1.7 million gallons of oil into the Prairie River (11), giving Enbridge the record for largest inland oil spill in US history. It was only because the river was still frozen that the oil didn’t reach the Mississippi (12). But in 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6b ruptured in Michigan, spilling dilbit directly into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo river, displacing 150 families permanently from their homes (13), closing access to the river for nearly two years, and costing more than $1 billion to clean up (14).


No reward

All these human and environmental tolls are sustained for oil we don’t need and the dream of a profit that will never come. Line 3 is facing a challenge from Minnesota’s Department of Commerce because Enbridge has repeatedly failed to prove that there is long-term demand for their product(15). Minnesota’s refineries couldn’t use more oil if they had it (16). For now the oil from Line 3 might be shipped south to refineries in the Gulf Coast to replace oil from South America (17), but Line 3 will find itself without a market in just a fraction of its lifetime. In order to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 annual demand for oil is projected to decrease by 1.5 billion tons in the next 10 years (18). That means a 30% cut to the entire market for oil over a decade (19). As the market shrinks, oil from tar sands — one of the last sources of oil to become commercially viable — will be the first victim. Enbridge’s product can’t hope to compete with other sources that are cheaper to produce, easier to transport, and even cleaner in comparison. The success of Line 3 as a business venture is incompatible with a liveable future.

For now the industry is clinging to life. For Enbridge, Line 3 is a multibillion-dollar incentive to keep the oil flowing for a few more decades. With the facts against it, Enbridge is fighting however it can: through misrepresentation, and through threats. Enbridge says the old pipeline is at risk of another large spill. But rather than properly maintaining the line, or simply retiring it, Enbridge has used it for leverage. When the Public Utilities Commission voted to approve major permits for the new line, board members admitted they did so only because they believed the existing Line 3 was a threat, and that Enbridge would only shut it down if they got what they wanted (20). Commissioner Dan Lipschultz had this to say: “It feels like a gun to our head that somehow compels us to approve a new pipeline.”(21)

The new Line 3 pipeline would nearly double the current capacity from 390,000 barrels of light crude oil per day to 760,000 barrels of light and heavy crude. The Environmental Impact Statement for the project estimates that overall the expansion would be responsible for additional greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 193 million tons of CO2(22). In 2016 the entire state of Minnesota emitted 154 million CO2e, meaning that even if the state succeeded in reaching net zero emissions by 2050, the Line 3 expansion would single-handedly cancel that effort.

From start to finish the Line 3 proposal is disconnected from reality and from Minnesota’s interests. Line 3 threatens the water we drink and the air we breathe, and all it offers in return is a prolonged death for a handful of foreign oil companies. In 10 years it will be a pipeline from nowhere, to nowhere, abandoned by Enbridge like all of its other pipelines, and left for Minnesotans to shoulder the burden.




(1) Carnegie Endowment Oil-Climate Index. TOTAL ESTIMATED GHG EMISSIONS AND PRODUCTION VOLUMES FOR 75 OCI TEST OILS. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from http://oci.carnegieendowment.org/#total-emissions

 (2) WSJ News Graphics. “Barrel Breakdown: The cost of producing a barrel of oil and gas varies widely across the world, setting up winners and losers as the price of crude fluctuates at historically low levels.” (April 15, 2016). Retrieved November 9, 2020 from http://graphics.wsj.com/oil-barrel-breakdown/ 

 (3) Sierra Club North Star Chapter. “What Are Tar Sands?”. (April 2017). Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/sce/north-star-chapter/pdf/TarSandsFactSheet.pdf 

(4) Jennifer Grant, Eli Angen and Simon Dyer. “Forecasting the impacts of oilsands expansion: Measuring the land disturbance, air quality, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and tailings production associated with each barrel of bitumen production”. Pembina Institute. (June 2013). Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.pembina.org/reports/oilsands-metrics.pdf

(5) Tim McSorley. “A New Study Confirms the Tar Sands Are Harming the Health of First Nations”. VICE News. July 11, 2014. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.vice.com/en/article/wdb7jm/a-new-study-confirms-the-tar-sands-are-harming-the-health-of-first-nations-900

(6) CEC. 2020. Alberta Tailings Ponds II. Factual Record regarding Submission SEM-17-001. Montreal, Canada: Commission for Environmental Cooperation. p 35. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from http://www.cec.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/17-1-ffr_en.pdf

(7) Union of Concerned Scientists. “What Are Tar Sands?”. (Feb 23 2016). Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/what-are-tar-sands#:~:text=Tar%20sands%20

(8) Liggio, J., Li, S., Hayden, K. et al. Oil sands operations as a large source of secondary organic aerosols. Nature 534, 91–94 (2016). Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.nature.com/articles/nature17646

(9) ELIZABETH MCGOWAN AND LISA SONG. “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of, Part 1”. Inside Climate News. June 26, 2012. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/20120626/dilbit-diluted-bitumen-enbridge-kalamazoo-river-marshall-michigan-oil-spill-6b-pipeline-epa

(10) Mike De Souza. “TransCanada terminates Energy East pipeline project”. Canada’s National Observer. October 5, 2017. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.nationalobserver.com/2017/10/05/news/transcanada-terminates-energy-east-pipeline-project

(11) Winona Laduke. “Happy Anniversary: The largest inland oil spill in U.S. history happened in Minnesota”. Herald Review. March 3, 2017. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.grandrapidsmn.com/opinion/happy-anniversary-the-largest-inland-oil-spill-in-u-s-history-happened-in-minnesota/article_2ade2706-004f-11e7-9023-2b31a01741a6.html

(12) Julie Siple, Bill Wareham, Dan Kraker, and Cody Nelson. “Rivers of Oil.” Episode 2, The Largest Inland Spill. MPR News. Podcast audio. June 19, 2018. https://www.mprnews.org/podcasts/rivers-of-oil-

(13) McGowan and Song. Dilbit Disaster.

(14) David Hasemyer. “Enbridge’s Kalamazoo Spill Saga Ends in $177 Million Settlement”. Inside Climate News. (July 20, 2016.) Retrieved November 17, 2020 from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/20072016/enbridge-saga-end-department-justice-fine-epa-kalamazoo-river-michigan-dilbit-spill#:~:text=Ultimately%2C%20the%20oil%20reached%20nearly,closed%20for%20nearly%20two%20years.

(15) Dan Kraker. “Another Line 3 appeal: Four things to know”. MPR News. August 20, 2020. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/08/20/another-line-3-appeal-4-things-to-know

(16) Minnesota Commerce Department. “After extensive review, Minnesota Commerce Department releases expert analysis and recommendation on the certificate of need for Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 oil pipeline project”. September 11, 2017. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from  https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/MNCOMM/bulletins/1b655ef

(17) Dan Kraker. “Does Minnesota really need a new oil pipeline?” MPR News. September 26, 2017. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from  https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/09/26/line-3-oil-pipeline-necessity-public-hearings-begin

(18) International Energy Agency. Change in energy demand by scenario, 2019-2030. World Energy Outlook 2020. October 12, 2020. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/change-in-energy-demand-by-scenario-2019-2030

(19) Short-Term Energy Outlook. U.S. Energy Information Administration. October 6, 2020. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from  https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/report/global_oil.php

(20) Julie Siple, Bill Wareham, Dan Kraker, and Cody Nelson. “Rivers of Oil.” Episode 5, The Decision. MPR News. Podcast audio. June 19, 2018. https://www.mprnews.org/podcasts/rivers-of-oil

(21) Ibid.

(22) State of Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings. 2500-32764 2500-33377 Enbridge Line 3 Report. P. 196. Table 5.2.7-12. Average Life-Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Various Crude Oils. Retrieved November 9, 2020 from https://mn.gov/oah/assets/2500-32764-2500-33377-enbridge-line-3-report_tcm19-336838.pdf