Canadian pipeline builder Enbridge will file applications this week to build a $2.5 billion oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. Opponents are already organizing for a fight.
The 610-mile Sandpiper line would carry more than 200,000 barrels per day from western North Dakota's Bakken fields to the company's terminal in Superior, Wis. The web of pipelines that transport Bakken oil now is straining to keep up with supply, so a new line is crucial, company officials say.
While environmental groups may rally against it, Sandpiper also faces opposition from a different kind of foe — farmers and other property owners who worry the pipeline will destroy their land and way of life.
"We want to protect what we have, and we know there are others like us who want to protect what they have, and we're banding together," said farmer Steve Schulstrom, part of a group of two dozen landowners, organic farmers and others in Carlton County pressing to have the pipeline routed somewhere else.
Enbridge has proposed two routes for the new line. One would follow its existing pipeline corridor. But the company's preferred Minnesota route cuts a new path south to Park Rapids before turning east toward Superior, through Carlton County.
That would take it right through a hayfield where organic farmer Janaki Fisher-Merritt hopes to grow potatoes.
"We limed and put manure on that this spring, and then we find out in July that's exactly where they want to put a pipeline," Fisher-Merritt said recently as he walked the land. "If they go through there it just increases our risk too much, we won't grow vegetables on it."
Building the pipeline, he said, would disturb huge amounts of rich soil filled with complex bacteria and nutrients especially important for organic farmers who can't rely on synthetic fertilizer.
Other organic farmers elsewhere have not been able to grow high quality vegetables on farmland crossed by pipelines Fisher-Merritt added. "Essentially what a pipeline does is it destroys that productive capacity of the land for organic crops, particularly for fresh market vegetables."
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will spend the year weighing landowner concerns against the need for Sandpiper, one of three proposed new pipelines from North Dakota that could cut across the state in coming years.
If the PUC signs off on the plan, the company plans to begin building, whether across these farms or somewhere else, late next year. Enbridge estimates it would hire about 1,500 temporary workers during construction.
If approved, landowners wouldn't be able to say no to the pipeline running on their property, though Enbridge would negotiate fair compensation with each landowner.
"One of the main things we're paying for is an easement," company spokeswoman Lorraine Little said. "We pay fair market value, as if we are purchasing the land outright, but the reality is after construction is over, the landowner can use it, if it's farmland, they can use it to farm still."
The company already operates five cross-state pipelines, but there are still bottlenecks moving crude out of North Dakota, said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. "We expect production to continue to grow for the next number of years, and having systems like Sandpiper to continue to meet that future growth is critical," he said.
Other proposed pipelines, like the Keystone XL project that would carry tar sands oil from Canada, have encountered fierce environmental opposition. Fisher-Merritt and other nearby landowners are concerned about potential pipeline spills.
Three years ago, an Enbridge-owned pipeline in Michigan burst, dumping 800,000 gallons oil that flowed into the Kalamazoo River.
For Schulstrom, who's spent a dozen years with wife Rita Vavrosky restoring their century-old farm, the Sandpiper's impact would be immediate.
The proposed Carlton County route would cut a swath through a forest of maple trees on his land right where he plans to expand an organic syrup operation next year.
"Businesswise, it would be impossible," he said. "If the trees are gone," he said, "you can't tap the trees."