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Oil pipeline pumping millions of dollars into area communities

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Staging area
A large field in Bemidji has become a staging area for close to 1,000 workers on one segment of the Alberta Clipper and Southern Lights pipeline construction projects. The two are being built simultaneously, with completion expected early next year.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

A controversial new oil pipeline called the Alberta Clipper has created thousands of construction jobs across northern Minnesota and is pumping millions of dollars into communities all along the pipeline route. 

The pipeline will carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to a refinery in Superior, Wisconsin. Project manager Jack Olin of Enbridge Energy said it's an $8 billion expansion.

"On a scale of one to 10, this project is a 12," Olin said. "It's an incredibly large-scale project, a once in a lifetime build, literally."

The Alberta Clipper is a 36-inch pipeline that will eventually carry 19 million gallons of oil a day. 

The Canadian section of the pipeline is about 600 miles long, and the U.S. segment stretches 326 miles, most of it in Minnesota. It runs from the northwestern tip of the state, along a line through Thief River Falls, Clearbrook and Bemidji, then eastward through Deer River, Grand Rapids, and finally to Superior. 

Another stretch of new pipeline called the Southern Lights will run 188 miles from Clearbrook to Superior.

Work on the pipeline is just gearing up, but eventually some 3,000 workers will be on the job across northern Minnesota. The project is expected to be completed by early next summer.

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Many workers were hired locally through the union halls, but about half are professional pipeliners like Roger Martin, a foreman who comes from Monticello, Ark.

"You're going to be booming the hotels, you're going to be booming the little convenience stores, the hardware stores," Martin said. "We're going to be spending our money right here in their communities and stuff, so it's a big impact on communities around here."

Enbridge estimates the workers will spend $60 million on lodging, gas, food and recreation. Some bring their families along and rent houses or apartments. 

The company and its contractors will spend an additional $110 million locally for construction-related purchases, ranging from lumber and concrete to trucking and landscaping services.

Construction foreman Roger Martin
Pipeline construction foreman Roger Martin of Monticello, Ark. has been doing pipeline work for 20 years. He says visiting workers have been welcomed into local communities.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The influx of workers in the Bemidji area has meant a shortage of rental housing. Some homeowners are renting out rooms to pipeline workers, and a local hotel that's been closed for several years may reopen. Contractors even approached Bemidji State University to see if there was housing available in the dorms, but with enrollment up this year, BSU didn't have the space.

Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce President Lori Paris said, despite the housing struggles, construction of the pipeline has meant a big surge in economic activity in the Bemidji area.

"For those businesses that have kind of been on the fence, now they're seeing a big swing in, especially the dining and lodging, as well as just regular provisions and things," Paris said. "Those folks are really doing gangbusters."

Other segments of the regional economy have been struggling during the recession. Construction is down, the timber industry is stagnant, and many equipment operators, truck drivers and laborers have been unemployed.

"So this pipeline coming along at this time of the year for these guys is just one heck of a shot in the arm," Dan Kingsley, a representative of the equipment operators union based in Virginia, Minn., said.

Pipeline workers
Pipeline workers take a break at a work site in Bemidji. Enbridge Energy officials say they expect to pay about $276 million in wages for the project. The $1.2 billion U.S. segment is part of an $8 billion pipeline exansion.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Kingsley said the project has put hundreds of union members back to work.

"It's been very, very positive for us, coming at a very opportune time with the economy being slow," Kingsley said. "We have a tremendous amount of people sitting out of work, in between projects right now."

Not everyone is happy about the Alberta Clipper. A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court to halt construction of the pipeline. The groups contend that oil extracted from the tar sands region of Alberta is among the dirtiest in the world, and claim that refining it will release more pollutants and contribute to global warming.