In oil pipeline fight, should the theater be off-limits?

In matters of protest, what is “out of bounds?”

The question, which has swirled around restaurants in Washington, D.C., as dinners of the powerful were interrupted by protesters, reached Minneapolis recently when protesters of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline shut down a Nov. 19 performance of the Theater of Public Policy, which featured members of the Public Utility Commission.

The theater intersperses discussion with improv comedy.

Earlier in the day, the PUC had reaffirmed support for the $2.6 billion pipeline to move oil from Alberta to Superior.

As theater co-founder Tane Danger started the discussion hecklers interrupted and overwhelmed the performance, forcing its cancellation.

“Those opportunities for an audience to learn about the PUC, Line 3 and whether allowing that pipeline was a terrible decision or not were closed off by the actions of a few,” Danger writes in one of two dueling op-eds in today’s Star Tribune. “This was particularly frustrating for large parts of our audience, many of whom told me in calls and e-mails after the abbreviated event that they were against the new pipeline but had wanted the chance to learn more about the PUC and how they might engage with it going forward on precisely these kinds of issues.”

This is still an opportunity to reaffirm our mission at the Theater of Public Policy and the value of civil discourse broadly. We believe in creating spaces where people can learn something new, discuss big issues and disagree while appreciating the humanity of people on all sides of an issue.

We do our work in this way not simply for some polite notions of how civil society should work, but because we believe they will produce the most socially just outcomes.

We believe in our audiences and the people we serve with our show. Given the breadth of information and perspectives on an issue, they will better understand the reasons to be engaged with it and will be better equipped to do so.

“That pipeline, which will contribute to climate destruction and threaten Minnesota’s waters, wild rice and Anishinaabe treaty rights, is not comedy material,” countered pipeline opponent Scott Russell, of Minneapolis, who attended the performance but did not participate in the protest.

He said the two PUC commissioners needed to be challenged, not allowed to be the only voices heard.

[PUC commissioner Dan] Lipschultz touted how the PUC implemented the state’s carbon-reduction plans. In 2005, 65 percent of Minnesota’s power came from coal, he said. Today, only 43 percent of our power comes from coal. By 2030, only 22 percent will come from coal.

What Lipschultz omitted was that approving Line 3 would create the carbon pollution equivalent of 50 new coal plants. The Line 3 environmental impact statement put Line 3’s social cost of carbon — damages from drought, hurricanes, agricultural losses, etc. — at $287 billion over the 30 years. The PUC rejected that number, saying the science was too imprecise. Effectively, the PUC put Line 3’s climate impact at $0.

“I understand disrupting the show was upsetting for some audience members,” he said. “I hope the experience encourages them to look into the facts and understand why people took this action.”

On that point, he and Danger seemed to agree.

“We believe — to paraphrase a great Minnesotan — that we all do better when we all know more,” he concluded.