Minnesota Regulators Pave Way for Contentious Oil Pipeline

Opponents of Enbridge Energy’s proposal to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota demonstrate on Friday before a Minnesota Public Utilities Commission hearing in St. Paul. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – Energy regulators gave the go-ahead Monday to a controversial Minnesota oil pipeline project, retreading a process that the state appeals court undid last year.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted 3-1 to approve an environmental impact statement and certificate of need for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project, before an audience of tribal detractors and blue-shirted pipeline supporters. It would replace an existing pipeline built in the 1960s and stretch from Superior, Wisconsin to Edmonton, Alberta.

The hearing was a second chance for anti-pipeline advocates like the Native American group Honor The Earth to make their case against Line 3. The Public Utilities Commission found Enbridge’s final environmental impact statement, or FEIS, for the pipeline adequate in May 2018, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that decision last June after environmental groups and three nearby Ojibwe bands challenged it. The court found that the FEIS needed to better examine the potential effects of the pipeline project on Lake Superior and its watershed.

Enbridge returned to the commission with a revised FEIS, incorporating information from a Department of Commerce spill modeling project on Little Otter Creek, which Enbridge claimed is the location where a potential spill would be most likely to reach the Great Lake.

Line 3 now has just a few more hoops to jump through. Approval of the FEIS frees the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency to proceed with their own permitting processes for the pipeline, and Enbridge still needs permits from the Army Corps of Engineers before it can begin construction, originally meant to be completed by the end of this year.

The hearing began Friday with three hours of public comments, many coming from environmentalists and would-be pipeline workers. Monday saw the parties themselves make their cases before a quick ruling from the commissioners, despite time blocked out for the hearing to continue Tuesday.

Line 3’s supporters argued that the pipeline had undergone enough scrutiny over five years and 68 public meetings, repeating that the pipeline was the most studied in Minnesota’s history and that the demand for oil would not stop if the new pipeline was not built. They also argued that transport of oil by pipeline is safer than other options, including trains.

Those supporters included several building trade unions, which hope the $2.6 billion pipeline project could bring thousands of jobs to their members.

“It’s a first step, and I think the commission did their due diligence,” Dan Olson said of the pipeline approval. Olson represents Minnesota and North Dakota in the Laborer’s International Union of North America. He expressed confidence in the pipeline, saying that “labor is involved in making sure it’s safe.”

Opponents, meanwhile, focused on the impacts of climate change on Minnesota, which many said were not accounted for in the report. Some also pointed out that the existing Line 3 pipeline has had several spills, including the largest inland oil spill in American history in 1991 in Hutchinson, Minnesota. They also said the evaluation of one site to meet the Court of Appeals’ Lake Superior impact requirement didn’t meet expectations.

“Did 68 people pouring out their hearts to you, crying in hearings, matter?” a tearful Winona LaDuke asked the commission. LaDuke is the program director of Honor the Earth.

“Pipelines break. Pipelines spill, even new ones,” she said. “At some point, we’ve got to reckon with what we’re doing and at some point we have to say ‘enough.’”

Opposition to pipelines in Minnesota and the Dakotas ramped up in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 and 2017. Like those protests, which took place on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakota borderlands, opposition to Line 3 has been led by the state’s Native American population, particularly the Ojibwe bands whose treaty-ceded lands the proposed pipeline would cross.

A 2018 deal with leaders of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe secured a promise from Enbridge to reroute Line 3 around the Leech Lake reservation and remove the old pipeline from the band’s lands. The current plan would still send oil directly through the territory of another Ojibwe band at Fond du Lac, just west of Duluth, and through treaty-ceded lands where the bands retain hunting, fishing and wild rice harvesting rights.

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