Clearbrook, Minnesota, is a small town of just over 500 people in far northern Minnesota. It sits at the edge of the fertile Red River Valley but is decidedly more “northwoodsy.” Hunting is akin to a second religion. Timber is abundant, as is cultivated wild rice.
Clearbrook is also my hometown. In elementary school, I remember how thrilling it was to discover that the Guinness Book of World Records designated Clearbrook the “Wild Rice Capital of the World.” While we lived five miles out of town on a farm, I benefited from the small-town ethos that celebrated local school sports, pulled together to fund a community pool, and valued its heritage by converting the old railroad 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 the town in the 1950s and early 1960s. As the democratization of automobile ownership accelerated, Americans needed more petroleum than ever to fuel a transportation revolution. The Eisenhower administration’s successful passage of the Federal Interstate Highway Act six years after the first bit of pipeline was laid just outside of Clearbrook would reshape the country’s highway infrastructure for decades. The three pipeline companies only grew in their capacity to pump oil as more construction resulted in more pumping stations and storage facilities. The economic benefits to the very sparsely populated region of northern Clearwater County also became apparent through the creation of jobs (many of them seasonal) and tax revenue. In 2012 for example, the total property tax amount collected by the county was $7 million. Today, Canadian-based Enbridge Energy is the primary owner of the Clearbrook Terminal and the pipelines. The company employs about 15 permanent on-site workers 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, by far the largest contributor to property tax revenue.
Against the backdrop of my childhood in the early 1980s, the county experienced economic decline. The population shrank from 12,000 to 8,000. Hundreds of dairy farms dropped to less than 15. Creameries closed. Schools consolidated. Yet I took pride in the few industries that put my hometown on the map and displayed the resilience of my community. In 1982, alongside the flourishing oil industry, a group of farmers formed a Wild Rice co-op, purchased a shuttered snowmobile factory, then transformed it into a processing plant for the niche grain. Rice farming proved so successful that the Guinness Book of World Records took notice.
Widespread environmental awareness surrounding fossil fuels, and oil in particular, had not yet become common when I was growing up. Like most Americans, I watched the footage from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in 1989 with sadness, but it seemed like a distant environmental catastrophe, one that certainly wouldn’t impact my daily existence in northern Minnesota. I had classmates whose fathers “worked on the pipeline,” or owned businesses that depended on it. I came to understand that the work was physically demanding, but paid a decent wage. When I graduated from high school, several of the sons of those “pipeliners” were attracted to the same jobs.
Years later and hundreds of miles from Clearbrook, I began to gain a fuller understanding of the economic and environmental tradeoffs on display near my hometown. Oil spills, several of which were significant in the damage they caused to pristine wetlands around the county had in fact routinely occurred. Yet the sparse population and abundance of remote wild lands often meant little notice was taken locally. The state pollution control agency and pipeline companies handled it quietly. The most significant 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 oil from migrating into a Mississippi River tributary. 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.
That tragedy brought increased environmental and regulatory scrutiny and more attention to Clearbrook. National and global news outlets began to report on the region’s significance to the broader petroleum industry. During this same period, two contradictory strands of thought emerged within the realms of politics and energy policy. On one hand, politicians heightened their call for “energy independence” and new technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing increased access to North American oil fields and brought a tremendous economic boom to places like rural North Dakota. On the other hand, concern over climate change gained momentum, particularly as the oil-friendly Bush administration gave way to the Obama years. By 2012,the Obama administration rejected the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline
Back in Clearbrook, rumblings of pipeline upgrades had also begun in 2012 as oil production had ramped up considerably from the Dakotas and Canada. By 2014, Enbridge Energy sought approval to upgrade Line 3, a 1,031 mile stretch of pipeline in Canada and Minnesota constructed in 1968. While many Clearbrook residents eagerly anticipated increased investment in their community, opposition grew from environmental groups and Native American tribal members, many of whom resided on the 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 tense due to a toxic undercurrent of racism, resentment, and a deep mistrust tracing back to pioneer days. For many tribal members, the Line 3 replacement project became a symbol of longstanding oppression; of land taken and never returned; of continued exploitation and degradation of the region’s natural resources.
For most of the residents of Clearbrook, the pipeline symbolizes an economic status quo. It’s been there for seventy years and had faded into the background of everyday life until Line 3. In Clearbrook and surrounding communities, the highly visible protests to pipeline construction were met with anger and a prevailing attitude that characterized opponents as “environmental radicals” or “outsiders from the Cities” that know nothing of the economic challenges that punctuate life in northern Minnesota. Regardless, the pipeline hasn’t resulted in sustained population growth. In fact, fewer people call Clearbrook home today than in 1950 when the first pipeline was constructed. One of the town’s key employers, the local nursing home, sits vacant today. Graduating high school class size continues to decline.
And yet, the economic pivot undertaken by that group of enterprising farmers in 1982 from snowmobiles to wild rice holds important lessons for today. In September of 2021, the rice plant expanded with the construction of two new silos for storage, thus demonstrating increased national demand for a locally and sustainably produced food. Perhaps that forward thinking mentality could be harnessed once again, as new economic opportunities for rural America, like alternative energy infrastructure, are financially incentivized by the government and big business. Indeed, in rural communities from Alaska to Maine, wind and solar projects have led to real economic growth in terms of job creation and tax revenue. In the case of one electrical cooperative in Estherville, Iowa (located in a county with roughly half the population of Clearwater County’s), two 10.5-megawatt distributed wind projects will earn well over $300,000 per year for 20 years. Estherville has since attracted additional wind energy focused business. For now, the network of pipelines that bring crude oil down from Canada and through Clearbrook will remain in place and Enbridge will reliably replenish the county’s coffers. However, as the climate warms and American consumers grow less reliant on oil in the decades to come, the story of Clearbrook may become a cautionary tale, of a community left behind in spite of a diversifying energy landscape that could potentially reshape its fortunes.