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Line 3 Oil Pipeline Opponents Appeal to Minnesota Supreme Court

Construction is well underway on the controversial oil pipeline as detractors take to the barricades — and the courts.

St. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota environmentalists and Native American groups hoping to stop the construction of a controversial oil pipeline have brought their latest challenge to the Minnesota Supreme Court as activists are working to slow it on the ground. 

At issue is a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision from June in which the court narrowly ruled in favor of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) approval of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline project. The appellants include two bands of Ojibwe Native Americans, also known as Chippewa or Anishinaabe, along with environmental groups Honor the Earth and the Sierra Club, among others. They were joined in their initial appeal by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, but the department is absent from the present appeal. 

“We appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court to right the wrongs that the state and its rogue agencies have foisted on the Anishinaabe of the north during climate change and the unraveling of the tar sands economy in Canada, plus the worst drought that we can remember as the DNR and Enbridge withdraw 5 billion gallons of water from a fragile ecosystem,” Honor the Earth founder Winona LaDuke said in a joint statement given by the appellants. 

In two separate petitions to the state's high court, the appellants argued that the Court of Appeals’ approval of the PUC’s Certificate of Need greenlight for the project used the wrong legal standard and improperly downplayed the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions while overvaluing the need for a replacement to the existing Line 3, built in the 1960s. 

“The commissioners, without reference to or apparent understanding of applicable pipeline safety standards, interpreted Enbridge’s existing Line 3 corrosion data to be evidence that existing Line 3 was dangerous — in direct contradiction of Enbridge’s
undisputed evidence that existing Line 3 was then safe and could be operated safely
indefinitely” Honor the Earth and Sierra Club attorney Paul Blackburn wrote in one of the petitions.

Attorney Amelia Vohs of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, representing a local environmental group known as the Youth Climate Intervenors, argued in another petition that the PUC and Court of Appeals had both undervalued the dangers of encouraging fossil-fuel demand.

“The Certificate of Need decision also requires the PUC to consider whether the consequences to society of granting the Certificate are more favorable than denying it, considering the project’s effects on the natural and socioeconomic environments,” she wrote. “The Administrative Law Judge found the pipeline’s lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions of 193 million tons per year, leading to $287 billion in social costs over 30 years, a pertinent effect under this factor.” 

Enbridge issued its own statement on the matter through spokeswoman Juli Kellner.

“Line 3’s Certificate of Need, Route Permit and Environmental Impact Statement have been reaffirmed multiple times by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and more recently by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in June,” Kellner wrote in an email. “Construction of Line 3 Replacement began in December 2020 after receiving all necessary approvals. Work along the approximately 300 mile route is already more than 60 percent complete. During this time, the project has been providing significant economic benefits in Minnesota for counties, small businesses, Native American communities, and union members.” 

That construction has been rocky, with protests of the pipeline escalating this summer across northern Minnesota. Over 500 protesters have been arrested or issued citations since construction began, and the cause has drawn the attention of celebrity activists like actresses Jane Fonda and Marisa Tomei, who the Sierra Club announced would be joining its executive director and writer Eve Ensler at the construction site Thursday.

A spill of drilling mud into a river last week also led opponents to call for more transparency. Kellner said cleanup of the spill is already complete and that it had no aquifer or downstream impacts. 

The pipeline, when completed, would replace and exceed the capacity of the existing Line 3, carrying Canadian tar sands oil and crude oil from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. The Minnesota portion of the project is the last to be completed, with short hops through North Dakota and Wisconsin long finished. 

Enbridge has faced a series of legal and procedural hurdles in Minnesota, with the Court of Appeals at one point sending it back to square one on the same Certificate of Need at issue in Wednesday’s filing. 

The project is estimated to cost about $7 billion, a figure that has made it a point of tension between environmentalists and parts of the organized-labor wing of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party. The work promised by Enbridge has gained it allies among unions and other labor groups in the northern part of the state, a constituency Democrats have fought, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep in their corner in recent years.

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