Lawsuit: US allowing more tar sands oil through Minn. without review

Tar sands
In this Aug. 5, 2005 file photo, trucks carry loads of oil-laden sand after being loaded by huge shovels at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
Jeff McIntosh / AP file

Environmental advocates are challenging a workaround by Enbridge Energy to transport additional Canadian crude oil into the United States while waiting for a federal permit.

The Sierra Club, the White Earth Nation and several other groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. State Department. The suit alleges that the department approved an Enbridge plan to construct and operate a crude oil pipeline that crosses the U.S.-Canada border without first reviewing the environmental impacts of the project as required by federal law.

Such a review would include an assessment of whether the project would increase greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

The groups said the case shows President Obama's administration is contradicting itself on policies involving Alberta's oil sands crude, which critics say produces more emissions than conventional crude. While the president has said his administration won't approve a permit for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline if it increases emissions, the State Department already is allowing Calgary-based Enbridge to pump more oil into the country, the advocates said.

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"It's very, very worrisome that the State Department is allowing Enbridge to refuse to go through the standard U.S. environmental review process," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The lawsuit asks the court to rule that the State Department's approval of the new pipeline and a bypass project violate the National Environmental Policy Act until the department completes its environmental review.

At issue is the Alberta Clipper pipeline Calgary-based Enbridge Energy built through Minnesota a few years ago. Because it crosses an international border, the pipeline needed a permit from the U.S. State Department. Enbridge currently can transport up to 450,000 barrels of crude oil per day on the Alberta Clipper but wanted to increase capacity to 800,000 barrels per day.

According to the lawsuit, that kind of increase requires environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, and the State Department must sign off on the plan. While that process was pending, the lawsuit alleges, Enbridge built a new cross-border pipeline segment to become part of an older, existing pipeline known as Line 3. That pipeline transports the oil across the border. Once in Minnesota, the oil can move to the Alberta Clipper line, which already has state approval for the increased capacity.

When the arrangement was first announced this summer, the State Department said the plan did not need its authorization. At the time, Enbridge said the plan was temporary and said its bid for the Alberta Clipper permit had been delayed by the controversy over Keystone XL. Enbridge officials did not immediately return calls on Wednesday, and State Department officials say they do not comment on pending litigation.

Enbridge released a statement Wednesday standing by the plan.

"Enbridge believes that the State Department has acted lawfully in connection with its presidential permitting responsibilities," spokeswoman Lorraine Little said in a written statement, adding that the arrangement allows the company to meet short-term customer demands.

Besides the Sierra Club and the White Earth Nation, the National Wildlife Federation, Center for Biological Diversity, Minnesota-based Honor the Earth and MN350 said Enbridge's workaround is illegal.

The groups also are concerned the arrangement could become permanent if the State Department fails to act on the Alberta Clipper permit.

"Basically the State Department has looked the other way," said Doug Hayes, an attorney for the Sierra Club. "They're evaluating the climate impacts of Keystone XL while simultaneously allowing Enbridge to increase this pipeline without any review process whatsoever."

Enbridge said in its statement that the workaround "does not address the longer term needs of our customers to move North American crude oil to North American refineries."