Clearbrook, Minnesota is a small town of just over 500 residents located in far northern Minnesota. It sits on the edge of the fertile Red River Valley, but is decidedly more ‘north-wooded’. Hunting is like a second religion. Timber is plentiful, as is cultivated wild rice.
Clearbrook is also my hometown. In elementary school, I remember how exciting it was to discover that the Guinness Book of World Records named Clearbrook the “Wild Rice Capital of the World”. While we lived five miles out of town on a farm, I enjoyed the small town spirit that celebrated local school sports, joined together to fund a community swimming pool, and valued its heritage by converting the old railway depot into a local history museum.
Clearbrook is also home to three intersecting oil pipelines. Historically known as the Lakehead Pipeline, Minnesota Pipeline Company, and Portal Pipeline Company, all three established a presence just outside of town in the 1950s and early 1960s. As the democratization of car ownership was accelerating, Americans needed more oil than ever to fuel a transportation revolution. The Eisenhower administration’s successful passage of the Federal Interstate Highway Act six years after the first section of pipeline was laid just outside Clearbrook would reshape the nation’s highway infrastructure for decades. All three pipeline companies have only increased their ability to pump oil, as more construction has led to more pump stations and storage facilities. The economic benefits to the sparsely populated area of northern Clearwater County have also become evident through the creation of jobs (many of which are seasonal) and tax revenue. In 2012, for example, the total amount of property tax collected by the county was $7 million. Today, the Canadian company Enbridge Energy is the principal owner of the Clearbrook terminal and the pipelines. The company employs around 15 permanent workers on site, but is estimated to drive at least 30% of the local economy. Nearly 60% of Clearwater County’s tax base comes from utilities with Enbridge being by far the largest contributor to property tax revenue.
In the context of my childhood in the early 1980s, the county went through an economic decline. The population fell from 12,000 to 8,000. Hundreds of dairy farms fell to less than 15. Creameries closed. Consolidated schools. Still, I was proud of the few industries that put my hometown on the map and showed the resilience of my community. In 1982, along with the booming oil industry, a group of farmers formed a wild rice cooperative, bought a closed snowmobile factory, and then turned it into a niche grain processing plant. The rice cultivation proved to be so successful that Guinness Book of World Records we acknowledged.
The widespread environmental awareness surrounding fossil fuels, and petroleum in particular, had not yet become mainstream when I was growing up. Like most Americans, I watched with sadness the footage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, but it looked like a distant environmental disaster, one that certainly wouldn’t impact my day-to-day existence in northern Minnesota. . I had classmates whose fathers “worked on the pipeline” or owned businesses dependent on it. I came to understand that the job was physically demanding, but paid a decent wage. When I graduated from high school, several of these pipeliners’ sons were drawn to the same jobs.
Years later and hundreds of miles from Clearbrook, I began to better understand the economic and environmental trade-offs exhibited near my hometown. Oil spills, several of which were significant in the damage they caused to pristine wetlands around the county, have in fact occurred regularly. Yet the sparse population and abundance of remote wild lands often meant that little attention was taken locally. The state pollution control agency and pipeline companies handled it quietly. The largest rupture in the 1990s occurred about 100 miles southeast of my hometown when 630,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, resulting in the literal burning of a wetland to prevent the oil from migrate to a tributary of the Mississippi River. Then, in 2007, two men lost their lives when a section of the pipeline exploded and spilled 15,000 gallons of crude oil near Clearbrook. Enbridge was fined $2.4 million and ordered to reduce pumping pressure.
This tragedy has resulted in increased environmental and regulatory scrutiny and attention to Clearbrook. National and global media have begun to report on the region’s importance to the broader oil industry. During this same period, two contradictory streams of thought emerged in the fields of politics and energy policy. On the one hand, politicians have intensified their call for “energy independence” and new technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have increased access to North American oil fields and caused a huge economic boom in places like rural North Dakota. On the other hand, concerns about climate change have grown, especially as the oil-friendly Bush administration gave way to the Obama years. In 2012, the Obama administration rejected the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline
Back in Clearbrook, rumors of pipeline upgrades also began in 2012 as oil production increased dramatically from the Dakotas and Canada. In 2014, Enbridge Energy applied for approval to upgrade Line 3, a 1,031-mile stretch of pipeline in Canada and Minnesota built in 1968. While many Clearbrook residents eagerly awaited increased investment in their community, opposition grew from environmental groups and Native American tribal members, many of whom resided on nearby Red Lake and White Earth Indian reservations.
Clearbrook is 30 miles south of the Red Lake Indian Reservation, one of the largest and poorest in the state of Minnesota. Relations between the two communities have always been strained due to a toxic undercurrent of racism, resentment and deep mistrust dating back to pioneer times. For many tribesmen, the Line 3 replacement project has become a symbol of long-standing oppression; land taken and never returned; continued exploitation and degradation of the region’s natural resources.
For most residents of Clearbrook, the pipeline symbolizes an economic status quo. It’s been there for seventy years and has faded into daily life all the way to Line 3. In Clearbrook and surrounding communities, the highly visible protests against the construction of the pipeline have sparked anger and a dominant attitude who called the opponents “environmental radicals” or “outsiders from the cities” who are unaware of the economic challenges that punctuate life in northern Minnesota. However, the pipeline did not result in sustained population growth. In fact, fewer people live in Clearbrook today than in 1950, when the first pipeline was built. One of the main employers in town, the local nursing home, is vacant today. Class sizes for high school graduates continue to decline.
Yet the economic pivot undertaken by this group of enterprising farmers in 1982, from snowmobiles to wild rice, holds important lessons for today. In September 2021, the rice factory expanded with the construction of two new silos for storage, demonstrating increased national demand for locally and sustainably produced food. Perhaps this forward-thinking mentality could be harnessed once again, as new economic opportunities for rural America, like alternative energy infrastructure, are financially incentivized by government and big business. Indeed, in rural communities from Alaska to Maine, wind and solar projects have resulted in real economic growth in terms of job creation and tax revenue. In the case of an electric cooperative in Estherville, Iowa (located in a county with about half the population of Clearwater County), two 10.5 megawatt distributed wind projects will bring in well over $300,000 a year for 20 year. Estherville has since attracted other companies focused on wind energy. For now, the network of pipelines that bring crude oil from Canada and through Clearbrook will remain in place and Enbridge will reliably replenish county coffers. However, as the climate warms and American consumers become less dependent on oil in the coming decades, Clearbrook’s story could become a cautionary tale, of a community left behind despite a diverse energy landscape that could potentially reshape his fortune.