'Landmark Decision' Casts Youth as Official Intervenors in Pipeline Case

By Frank Jossi

In what is regarded as an unusual step, a group of 13 young people have joined together to become court sanctioned intervenors as they fight a proposed Enbridge Energy pipeline through northern Minnesota.

Intervenors are sanctioned by the state Public Utilities Commission to represent parties in contested cases. They are generally lawyers and experts hired by energy firms, clean energy organizations, environmental groups, governmental agencies and an occasional citizen or two.

It's rare to see millennials attending a PUC hearing, or even someone not on the payroll of an organization involved in the process. But administrative law judge Ann O'Reilly accepted the argument by Youth Climate Intervenors that their generation will disproportionately feel the burden of climate change.

"In a landmark decision she granted us standing," said Akilah Sanders-Reed, the 23-year-old who founded the group. "She acknowledged we (young people) had a stake in it and that we deserved a seat at the table. What that means is that the Youth Climate Intervenors have the same rights in that courtroom as Enbridge Energy does."

A recent ThinkProgress article on millennial climate change activists said the organization is the only youth group nationally ever granted intervenor status in a pipeline case.

The PUC continues to hold hearings across the state to allow supporters and opponents of the Enbridge line to make their case. In St. Paul a few weeks ago, more than 1,000 people showed up at a pipeline hearing, among them members of the Youth Climate Intervenors.

Judge O'Reilly is hearing, reading and collecting testimony which she will then use to make a recommendation to the PUC next year on whether the more than $2 billion project should be built—and if so, what route it should follow.

The Canadian firm Enbridge Energy wants to replace its aging Line 3 pipeline with a newer version that would travel a new route south of the existing path. The new Line 3 would transverse wetlands and wilderness, while delivering 760,000 gallons of oil daily along a 337-mile route in Minnesota from Clearbrook to Superior, Wisconsin. The oil originates from the Alberta tar sands.

'An otherwise unheard voice'

As a college student and a young adult, Sanders-Reed was active for a time in the Citizens' Climate Lobby and serves on MN350.org's board of directors.

The idea behind Youth Climate Intervenors was to create an organization that could have a place at the PUC table and a more prominent voice in the debate. Sanders-Reed reached out to other young activists, including four from indigenous tribes, and petitioned the PUC to become an intervenor in late May. Although Enbridge objected to allowing the group to have status as intervenors, O'Reilly ruled in their favor in July.

Natalie Cook, an organizer with the Sierra Club's Northstar Chapter, said the presence of the youth group "is providing a critical and otherwise unheard voice in the process. Citizens can intervene and it's not unheard of but I've never seen young people intervene in this way before."

The Youth Climate Intervenors "takes seriously bringing forth views and perspectives that would otherwise not be heard" by regulators, she added.

About half the youth intervenors' group hasn't even graduated from high school, and they have no attorney to represent them. Nearly all of them are attending high school or college, she said.

The group sees the pipeline as carrying some of the dirtiest oil in the world—from the Alberta tar sands—and as potentially harmful to Minnesota's lakes and wetlands if an accident occurs.

In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline that ruptured in Michigan resulted in 843,000 gallons of water being released into a creek that flowed into the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup cost more than $1 billion.

Tar sands oil produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions as conventional crude oil and enormous ponds of toxic waste, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Tar sands is some of the most carbon intensive oil on earth," Sanders-Reed said. "This pipeline would lock in billions of dollars of climate damages, which is a price tag my generation will have to pay in the form of public health problems, natural disasters, crop failures and increased cost of living."

In addition, the proposed pipeline "would run through the headwaters of the Mississippi River and through some of the best wild rice lakes in the world," she said.

Members of the group have reached out to several experts, among them Oil Change International, NRDC, well-known Twin Cities meteorologist Paul Douglas, professors from local colleges, native American representatives, a health care professional and others.

"The 13 of us worked incredibly hard, everyone worked really hard on this," she said. "One of the high schoolers was calling up college professors and asking them to help. One of our University of Minnesota students was calling indigenous people from the community that she knows. All these experts have been so thrilled to work with Youth Climate Intervenors and have been so encouraging to us."

One of those intervenors who made calls to experts is Jada Brown, 20, a University of Minnesota student. She found in the Standing Rock protests a growing movement against big energy projects with what she sees as potentially destructive consequences.

"Being an indigenous woman and Youth Climate Intervenor, it's a responsibility of mine to speak out and fight for climate justice and protect the land and water, especially for those who are disproportionately affected by it or don't have a voice," said Brown in a profile in Power Shift, an climate advocacy website.

'Ambitious' goals

Frances Wetherall, a sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus College, was inspired after attending the People's Climate March in Washington, DC. Her sister knew one of the Youth Climate Intervenors and she signed on to be a member.

Although attending a college more than an hour southwest of St. Paul, Wetherall plans to make time to attend the evidentiary hearings where intervenors can question their own experts and those of pipeline supporters.

She does not want a pipeline of any sort to cross Minnesota. "What I'm hoping for is the tar sands Enbridge is trying to move stay in the ground, which I know is rather ambitious," she said.

"My attitude is like the 'Green Eggs and Ham' story in that I do not want it by rail, I do not want it by pipeline, I do not want it all. Instead I want Minnesota to lead the nation in clean energy."

Leili Fatehi, an attorney working for the Sierra Club, calls the intervenors "incredibly brave" for involving themselves in an administrative process that can be "intimidating" to non-experts and those unaccustomed to PUC hearings.

Moreover, the Sierra Club and other intervenors represent a broader mix of ages than the Youth Climate Intervenors, but that is their strength. "These guys, by virtual of the fact they're young, are bringing forth arguments about what it means for people under 25," she said.

"After all, they will pick up the majority of the costs for this … It will impact their health care, where can buy property, the cost of insurance—the real wealth impact of climate change."

In February, the administrative judge is expected to issue a recommendation to the PUC either supporting or denying Enbridge's certificate of need to build the pipeline and weigh in on the chosen route. The PUC will then make its own decision, likely in April.

Sanders-Reed, a 2106 Macalester graduate in environmental studies, began her career in political activism in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Minnesota's environmental ethos drew her to attend Macalester.

"I came to Minnesota because Minnesota seemed like the kind of place that could be a leader in clean energy and have a future I want to see," she said. "And I still believe in that. I have so much faith in the people of Minnesota who have stood up to this pipeline and for renewables, and for clean water, time and time again. I hope our elected officials and Judge O'Reilly hear that loud and clear."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Midwest Energy News.

Show Comments ()

Three Outlandish Ideas to Cool the Planet

By Jeremy Deaton

Climate change is a big, ugly, unwieldy problem, and it's getting worse by the day. Emissions are rising. Ice is melting, and virtually no one is taking the carbon crisis as seriously as the issue demands. Countries need to radically overhaul their energy systems in just a few short decades, replacing coal, oil and gas with clean energy. Even if countries overcome the political obstacles necessary to meet that aim, they can expect heat waves, drought and storms unseen in the history of human civilization and enough flooding to submerge Miami Beach.

Keep reading... Show less

Those Little Produce Stickers? They’re a Big Waste Problem

By Dan Nosowitz

Those little produce stickers are ubiquitous fruits and vegetables everywhere. But, as CBC notes, they're actually a significant problem despite their small size.

Keep reading... Show less

Despite Trump’s Bluster, U.S. Officials and Scientists Maintain Climate Work with International Partners

Trump has loudly declared his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but, behind the tweets and the headlines, U.S. officials and scientists have carried on working with international partners to fight climate change, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Gina Loudon and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Gage Skidmore

EPA Sued Over Failure to Release Correspondence With Heartland Institute

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is being sued for its "unlawful and unreasonable delay" in responding to requests for information about the agency's communications with the Heartland Institute, according to a complaint by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The Heartland Institute is an Illinois-based think tank that rejects the science of man-made climate change and has received funding from the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Trump Watch
Aerial photo of Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill. Wake Forest University Center for Energy, Environment & Sustainability

Trump Administration Seeks to Gut Water Pollution Safeguards, Putting Communities at Risk

By Mary Anne Hitt

A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't make this up. One day after new data revealed widespread toxic water contamination near coal ash disposal sites, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt announced a proposal to repeal the very 2015 EPA safeguards that had required this data to be tracked and released in the first place. Clean water is a basic human right that should never be treated as collateral damage on a corporate balance sheet, but that is exactly what is happening.

Keep reading... Show less
Impossible Foods

Impossible Burger Executive Grilled at Sustainable Foods Summit

An executive from a company selling a genetically engineered meat alternative faced tough questions at the Sustainable Foods Summit held in San Francisco at the end of January.

Keep reading... Show less
Elephant family in Kenya. Nzomo Victor / Flickr

Why Trump’s New Trophy Hunting Council Is a Disaster

By Elly Pepper

In early November—the same week the Trump administration announced its disastrous decision to allow elephant and lion trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia—the administration decided to create an advisory committee, the International Wildlife Conservation Council (IWCC), to advise Trump on how to enhance trophy hunters' ability to hunt internationally.

Yup, that means the administration now has a council dedicated exclusively to promoting the killing of more imperiled species, like elephants and lions, for sport. The council's mandate includes counseling Trump on the economic, conservation, and anti-poaching benefits of trophy hunting, of which there are very few. Sadly, Trump doesn't want advice on the many drawbacks of trophy hunting.

Keep reading... Show less
A robot bee from a season three episode of Black Mirror on Netflix

Walmart Files Patent for Robot Bees

With the mass die-off of bees spelling trouble for agriculture, the world's largest retailer has filed patents for the use of "unmanned vehicles," or drones, to aid with pollination and crop production.

In U.S. Patent Office documents made public last week, Walmart has applied for six patents on drones designed to identify pest damage, spray pesticides and pollinate plants.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!