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Analysis

How an Oil Company Pays Police to Target Pipeline Protesters

Enbridge has given Minnesota law enforcement over $2 million to crack down on Native American and environmental protesters at Line 3 pipeline construction sites.

October 7, 2021
protests
Kerem Yucel/Getty

A Cana­dian fossil fuel company is funnel­ing millions of dollars to local Minnesota police to protect its interests and under­mine the rights of protest­ers, many of them from Native Amer­ican tribes and envir­on­mental groups. So far, the prac­tice of compan­ies paying police to do their bidding has faced little public scru­tiny. In this case, that’s perhaps unsur­pris­ing in light of the scarce atten­tion often given to Native Amer­ic­ans’ rights.

Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline expan­sion will carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Alber­ta’s tar sands through Minnesota to Wiscon­sin and Lake Super­ior, oper­at­ing at full capa­city as soon as mid-Octo­ber. The route passes through the lands of Native Amer­ican tribes, who warn that the pipeline would viol­ate their treaty rights, contrib­ute to climate change, and risk cata­strophic spills in vital water­shed areas.

Over the last year, Enbridge has paid over $2 million to Minnesota police to enforce laws target­ing protest­ers against the pipeline. The nature of the finan­cial rela­tion­ship between Enbridge and Minnesota law enforce­ment is laid out in the Line 3 construc­tion permit issued by the state public util­it­ies commis­sion, requir­ing that the company deposit funds into a “Public Safety Escrow Account” managed by a state-selec­ted third-party liaison.

The permit author­izes reim­burse­ments for “main­tain­ing the peace in and around the construc­tion site” and related activ­it­ies. Police have been reim­bursed for activ­it­ies includ­ing train­ing, equip­ment, and “Line 3 Protest Response.” The funds are not supposed to be used for equip­ment aside from undefined “personal protect­ive gear,” although accord­ing to report­ing by the Inter­cept, police have reques­ted reim­burse­ment for “less-than-lethal” weapons such as batons, tear gas, and flash-bang devices. Without a full public record of the reim­burse­ments, it’s unclear which requests were approved.

While the third-party liaison reviews and approves the reim­burse­ment requests, the func­tional separ­a­tion of power between donor and recip­i­ent is ques­tion­able. Oil and gas compan­ies, includ­ing Enbridge, have been instru­mental in lobby­ing for the “crit­ical infra­struc­ture laws” that police use as a basis for arrest­ing protest­ers at construc­tion sites. Further­more, local Minnesota law enforce­ment and Enbridge employ­ees have main­tained a close part­ner­ship during the construc­tion of the Line 3 pipeline, shar­ing office space, parti­cip­at­ing in joint train­ing and meet­ings, and trad­ing inform­a­tion on protest activ­it­ies.

The funnel­ing of funds from Enbridge to police also removes an import­ant mech­an­ism of public account­ab­il­ity and trans­par­ency. If taxpay­ers were finan­cing the multi­mil­lion-dollar law enforce­ment fees to police the construc­tion site, they may be motiv­ated to join the discus­sion around the use of public funds and public servants to protect private prop­erty and arrest protest­ers.

Instead, private reim­burse­ments for pipeline-related police activ­ity, with no specified upper limit, incentiv­izes law enforce­ment to minim­ize over­sight. Minnesota police can essen­tially get funded twice — by taxpay­ers and by Enbridge — when they use their resources to serve the latter. Under the current arrange­ment, the public must depend on news outlets to report on what activ­it­ies are reim­bursed. And in another barrier to public over­sight, intel­li­gence data collec­ted by the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity-suppor­ted Minnesota Fusion Center related to Line 3 has also been clas­si­fied as secret “secur­ity inform­a­tion,” making it unre­triev­able via public records request.

Support­ers of this finan­cial rela­tion­ship may point to the fact that police are some­times paid by organ­izers of major sports games, parades, protests, or other events. However, these events oper­ate on a much smal­ler scale and shorter timeline than the construc­tion of a major infra­struc­ture project where the police are paid to enforce laws that specific­ally protect the interests of the private funder.

More funda­ment­ally, the goal of law enforce­ment at such events — at least in theory — is to protect the safety of the community, includ­ing the right to assemble and exer­cise free­dom of speech. By contrast, paying police to surveil and target pipeline protest­ers chills and suppresses First Amend­ment-protec­ted activ­ity. In the largely isol­ated construc­tion areas where protest­ers demon­strate, there is also no general public for the police to protect — there is only Enbridge and the protest­ers. At its core, the money from Enbridge motiv­ates police to prior­it­ize enfor­cing a law that uniquely bene­fits the corpor­a­tion over the needs of the surround­ing community and core consti­tu­tional rights.

Enbridge’s payments for Line 3 protec­tion are just one of the numer­ous ways that private interests increas­ingly influ­ence law enforce­ment. Many of the biggest Amer­ican corpor­a­tions donate hundreds of thou­sands of dollars to police found­a­tions, enabling the purchase of contro­ver­sial tech­no­lo­gies — like cell­phone loca­tion track­ers and auto­mated license plate scan­ner systems — with greatly reduced public over­sight. Some of these compan­ies may just desire the perks of a posit­ive rela­tion­ship with law enforce­ment, while others regu­larly engage with police for their secur­ity needs or tech­no­logy contract bids. 

Surveil­lance tech compan­ies also discount or donate their products for local law enforce­ment. For example, Ring has provided police depart­ments with door­bell-cameras to give out to homeown­ers, giving the company the appear­ance (if not the fact) of law enforce­ment endorse­ment. And earlier this year a $1 million private dona­tion from a conser­vat­ive billion­aire financed the deploy­ment of the South Dakota National Guard to the south­ern border.

But oil and gas compan­ies stand out in the amounts of money and time bestowed upon police to directly safe­guard unique private interests. One reason for this may be that post-9/11, private secur­ity guards have been considered an essen­tial source of protec­tion for “crit­ical infra­struc­ture,” because energy, commu­nic­a­tions, and trans­port­a­tion infra­struc­ture is largely managed by private compan­ies. Since 9/11, fossil fuel compan­ies and federal agen­cies have used this national secur­ity excuse to pass crip­pling penal­ties against pipeline protest­ers and treat nonlethal protest move­ments focused on envir­on­mental protec­tion as “domestic terror­ism.”

The Enbridge–law enforce­ment finan­cial rela­tion­ship is likely to face legal chal­lenges in the months ahead, includ­ing by the Part­ner­ship for Civil Justice Fund. Concern over the influ­ence of private interests on public safety is not new. In 1936, for example, in response to the viol­ent role of employer-created private police forces in crack­ing down on labor strikes, the La Follette Senate Commit­tee observed that the only role of these forces was to “defend the interests of the employer, whether an indi­vidual or corpor­a­tion,” with any “exer­cise [of] the nonpar­tisan func­tions of guard­ian of the law” being only “incid­ental.” More recently and author­it­at­ively, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1998 that an Oregon sher­iff’s depart­ment did not have the author­ity to accept payments from a timber company to provide private secur­ity services.

The La Follette Commit­tee and the Oregon timber case rein­forced basic tenets of the separ­a­tion of private and public interests. If a similar stand­ard is not set in the case of the Line 3 pipeline to address this clear conflict of interests and to protect protest­ers’ free­dom of expres­sion, we risk normal­iz­ing the prac­tice of police serving as paid secur­ity for corpor­ate interests.