Opponents of Enbridge Energy’s proposal to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota demonstrate on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, before a hearing on the project before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in the state Capitol complex in St. Paul, Minn. The opponents say the project would aggravate climate change. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

By Andy Monserud | Courthouse News

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The controversial Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline is nearly primed to advance in Minnesota after state regulators approved final permits this week.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved water-quality and wetland permits for the 340-mile, $2.6 billion pipeline project Thursday afternoon. The state’s Department of Natural Resources followed suit, approving eight more permits for the proposed pipeline replacement, most of them also related to the project’s impacts on water and wetlands. All 10 required DNR permits have now been granted; two were approved in October.

All that remains for the pipeline project, which would replace an existing tar sands oil pipeline built by Canada-based Enbridge Energy in 1968. The line runs from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin — a route which the new pipeline would roughly replicate — and at its height transported 760,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil per day. That capacity has diminished dramatically to 390,000 barrels per day, according to the company, leading Enbridge to pursue the replacement project.

The pollution control agency emphasized what it called “stringent” conditions on the permits, including prohibitions on construction in traditional wild rice waters, crucial to Ojibwe cultural practices and livelihoods, and “extensive stream and wetland mitigation efforts.”

The pipeline has nevertheless faced substantial opposition from environmental groups and Minnesota’s Native American tribes. Both fear pipeline leaks will contaminate drinking water and argued that creating more fossil-fuel infrastructure runs contrary to the goal of fighting climate change.

Andy Pearson, who leads climate-action group MN350’s response to the pipeline, said that the projected carbon emissions from oil transported through Line 3 would exceed Minnesota’s total emissions by about 35 million tons per year.  

“That’s a whole lot. That’s enough so that if we were able to decarbonize our entire economy… and we also build Line 3, as a whole, we’ve been responsible for moving backward, rather than moving forward, on climate,” Pearson said. “For us as a group that cares about the climate, that’s really a non-starter.” 

“The science is clear that Line 3 would threaten Minnesota’s clean water and set back our state’s progress on climate at a time when we can least afford it. Granting Enbridge the permits to build this tar sands pipeline through our state defies the science and defies the law,” Sierra Club North Star Chapter director Margaret Levin said in a statement. “This fight isn’t over. We will not allow this reckless decision to go unchallenged.”

Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth concurred. “The MNPCA has clearly avoided a hard scientific look at the cumulative impacts from Line 3 on 212 stream crossings and thousands of acres of wetland crossings, and water quality,” LaDuke said. “They have chosen to ignore the downstream effects of oil spills, and the implications of climate change. And they have moved irresponsibly on approving these permits at a time when Covd-19 is spreading rapidly in northern communities like it is statewide.

“This is a failure of prudent environmental governance and a lack of vision on a sound energy policy for the future.”

The pipeline’s supporters include a mixture of industry groups and labor interests. The Laborer’s International Union of North America (LiUNA), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters have all thrown their support behind the project, which promises to employ thousands of their members.

LiUNA spokesman Kevin Pranis said he was optimistic about the work the pipeline offered in light of ongoing dire straits in the construction business.

“The jobs couldn’t come at a more important time as we’re facing this pandemic and recession,” he said. “The project pipeline, the metaphorical pipeline, it does not look very good. So we’ve been fortunate that construction has been deemed to be essential work.”

Minnesotans for Line 3, a nonprofit established to advocate for the project, issued a brief statement regarding the approval

“People across Minnesota have supported Line 3 for years because they know how important this project is. Having state agencies release these permits proves again that this project has been thoroughly reviewed and has passed every test,” the statement said. “We are now closer than ever for work to begin in Minnesota to protect the environment and put thousands of people back to work.”

Minnesota is the last regulatory holdout among the states Line 3 would pass through. The sections of updated pipeline in Canada, North Dakota and Wisconsin are already operating. Enbridge still needs a few final permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would clear the way for a final construction stormwater permit from Minnesota’s pollution control agency.

Pranis said he was confident about those permits. “The Army Corps is just reviewing the PCA’s work, so we’re not concerned about that,” he said. 

The pipeline still faces legal challenges. One by the Minnesota Department of Commerce was revived this past August and challenges the permitting process, claiming that the state’s Public Utilities Commission erroneously granted Enbridge a certificate of need because the company did not provide a long-term demand forecast. The department accuses the commission of shifting the burden of proof of a projected decrease in demand from Enbridge to the Commerce department. That case has yet to be heard by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The appeals court has two other cases on its plate with regard to the pipeline, one challenging the permits for Line 3’s planned route and another questioning the environmental impact statement approved by the Public Utilities Commission. 

Pearson took Democratic Governor Tim Walz to task for failing to stop construction while those suits are still in court. 

“It’s a bit of an inconsistent position for the governor to be in here. One would assume that if the Department of Commerce’s lawsuit was being respected by the administration, that they wouldn’t be issuing construction permits,” Pearson said. He noted that Walz, during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, had promised not to allow any pipelines through treaty-ceded lands. 

Even after those are resolved, many activists have already protested construction in person and are likely to continue to do so. That possibility led White Earth Band of Ojibwe Chairman Michael Fairbanks to request a suspension of the regulatory process earlier this week, afraid that protests and construction could create rolling “super-spreader” Covid-19 events, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner rebutted that idea in a statement.

“At Enbridge safety is our top priority.  Enbridge implemented an effective Covid-19 testing and screening program that has proven effective during our recent Line 3 construction in North Dakota,” she wrote. “We will continue to follow the latest guidance provided by local, federal and international public-health and government authorities to protect workers and communities.” 

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