In Minnesota, environmental and Indigenous advocates are looking to elected officials to bolster their fight against an oil pipeline.
Enbridge Line 3 is a project that involves replacing 1,031 miles of steel pipe from Alberta to Wisconsin to nearly double its oil capacity. The battle is heating up: According to E&E News, Canadian energy company Enbridge may secure some key approvals in the state this week. That could really rev up the pipeline’s construction in Minnesota. Hopefully, the state’s new roster of climate justice champions can stop it.
Some of the greatest victories include Audrey Thayer, who won a seat on the Bemidji City Council, and Lyz Jaakola, who won a seat on the Cloquet City Council. Thayer is a member of the White Earth Nation and will be representing a city that sits nestled among three reservations: White Earth, Leech Lake, and Red Lake. She’s the first Indigenous woman elected to the city council. To the east, Jaakola is a member of the Fon du Lac Reservation. Both incoming city council members have committed to using their platforms to stop Line 3.
“It’s really exciting to have those two people in city council,” says Danielle Trajano, the climate justice organizer for MN350 Action, a local environmental organization. “It’s [also] really helpful to have a strong Senate that opposes Line 3 to influence, to stand up and be at hearings, pressure the governor. Even if they don’t have direct decision making, it just helps the political climate.”
That’s why I got on the phone with Lindsey Port, who was just elected to the state Senate to represent the Twin Cities suburbs. Advocates have one hell of a fight ahead; they’ll need leaders in positions beyond city councils. Port defeated incumbent Dan Hall, a Republican who has questioned climate science and ran on an oil-friendly platform.
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll get to meet state Sen. Port. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. Though Port is not Indigenous, she recognizes the power of her position and is committed to bringing those voices to the political table—especially to help stop Line 3.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you tell me a little bit about what drew you to run for the Minnesota state legislature this year and, specifically, building a campaign on climate justice
I was watching who my state senator was and the work he was doing. A big part of that was around his denial of climate science. He does not believe that climate change happens. He doesn’t believe that humans have a role in it. He consistently calls it a hoax and actively worked to block any climate justice legislation that had any possibility of moving through the legislature.
I have two little girls in elementary school, and I think a lot about what is the legacy that we’re leaving for them. What is the future we’re building? If our next generations don’t have a planet that can support them, that is safe for them to grow up on, nothing else that we’re building matters. So for me, climate justice is really at the heart of that.
Tell me about the campaign. What were some of the challenges that you encountered running on such progressive platforms? I understand that Minnesota has some conservative pockets.
I knew right from the beginning when I got into this that I was going to run on my values and what I think is most important. I felt really secure in doing that because I’ve been in conversation with my community for a decade. I’ve been knocking on doors here literally for 10 years and having those conversations on various different campaigns and for lots of different issues with our community, and the community is in support of this.
We have a lot of young families in our community. We have a growing diversity in our community, and this district has shifted quite rapidly over the last 10 years. What we’ve seen is just an incredible amount of engagement around climate. When I ran in 2016 for the first time, I let myself be guided to a “safer” place because “you have to be this” in the suburbs, “you have to be that” in the suburbs. I actually don’t think that’s true. I think what people in the suburbs, in greater Minnesota, in the core of Minneapolis want is people who are listening to them. They want people who are honest about the way they feel and who are open to having the conversation. For me, that was the whole point. We will not always agree on everything, but the fact that we can have an open conversation is really at the core of it.
“It’s my job to make space for those people who are already on the ground doing the work.”
How do you see yourself playing a supportive role in the state legislature in terms of supporting those on the ground who have been trying to stop Line 3?
Just like my campaign, just like every campaign that I’ve worked on, it really is the community on the ground that leads. It’s my job as a legislator to bring the voices from my community to the Capitol and to highlight the voices that are most closely affected by any issue. For me, that is the people who’ve been doing the work on the ground. It’s my job as a state senator to make sure those voices have a seat at the table, to make sure those groups that have been protesting, that have been talking about sovereign rights, that have been doing this work on the ground—those are the people who should have a seat at the table, should have the microphone when we’re talking about this. It is my job to vote and support in the best ways that I can, but it’s actually not my job to lead the conversation. It’s my job to make space for those people who are already on the ground doing the work.
Certainly in Minnesota, that ties directly into our Indigenous community. Native leaders have been leading on this from the start, and they should be the ones who are leading this conversation through as we hopefully come to the conclusion that Minnesota doesn’t need Line 3. They should be the voices that we’re highlighting.
What does that work look like for you, in terms of bringing voices to the table? How do you plan to make that a reality?
We really tried hard during our campaign to build a coalition. I built relationships all across the state with environmental groups, from the Sierra club to Protect the Boundary Waters. I think that is really the key.
There’s a group called MN350 that has done a massive amount of community engagement around climate and energy policy, from Line 3 to the copper-nickel mines in northern Minnesota to what does climate justice look like in our urban and rural communities. Building those relationships was the cornerstone of how I got connected to the voices that are leading on these issues. We’ve already done a lot of that work, so it means continuing to lift those up. Once we get to the Capitol, it will be in hearings and things like that, but for now, it’s on social media, it’s in press releases. It’s making sure that I’m making space on my team as we’re talking about policy for the people who are working on the ground. We’re already starting to put together exploratory policy that we’ll be bringing up this session, and climate is at the very top of that list for me.
Part of what advocates have been calling for is a Green New Deal. We often think about this at the federal level, a federal Green New Deal. However, we know that President-elect Joe Biden isn’t coming out in full support of a Green New Deal at least by name, so many local leaders are looking to enact their own Green New Deals for their communities. What are your goals or hopes for a Green New Deal in Minnesota?
I think you’re absolutely right. We can’t wait for the federal government to do this. We’ve waited an awfully long time for the federal government to do a lot of things. This is the place we can move locally. I think Minnesota is in a unique position to really lead on this. We have a progressive governor who takes both rebuilding infrastructure seriously and also climate change. Being able to make big investments—especially as we’re eventually coming out of a pandemic that has had incredible economic harm to our state—this is a path for us to rebuild, to create good-paying jobs.
We hear all the time Minnesota about this urban-rural divide, and I think creating good-paying jobs across the state of Minnesota that build a green economy and really make us one of the center points of focusing on what this could look like over the next decade, that’s the heart of Minnesota. We’re innovators. We’d like to lead the way.
At the heart of a Green New Deal is racial justice, economic justice, equity. We’re seeing this moment in U.S. history where we seem, as a nation, to finally be confronting some of the racial injustice that has long existed here. We’re also seeing the dark underbelly of that: white supremacy and voters showing up for politicians, such as President Trump, who ran on racist campaigns. How do you see your role as a legislator in helping bridge this gap of environmental justice, racial justice, and ensuring that racial justice is a key pillar in climate policy moving forward in Minnesota?
We’ve had four years in this country that has really brought the racial injustice of our country to the forefront, and it’s our job now to make sure that we continue that conversation and actually move legislation to help mitigate that. And climate is absolutely tied to it. Some of the biggest things that we can do on clean transit, on bike paths, and reducing emissions from cars most affect our communities of color, particularly in Minneapolis and St. Paul—but increasingly in the suburbs like mine. That is one of the places we can move pretty quickly.
There are things we can do right now to help communities that have been most affected by climate change and by environmental policies that we’ve put into place. Certainly, some of these are removing incinerators from neighborhoods that are primarily Black. It’s investing in green transit and in more transit. It’s investing in affordable housing so that people can work near their homes. There are things like that that we can do right away to help the communities that’ve been most affected by this—communities of color—but it’s also tied into exactly what I was saying before. We need the voices. We need the leaders from those communities to be heard on this. Continuing to make space for that is my job.