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Proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline moves closer to reality

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610 miles of pipe waiting
Enbridge planned to start work on their Sandpiper pipeline project through northern Minnesota last fall, but the permitting process has taken longer than expected. All 610 miles of pipe have been milled and are ready to be assembled. Fifty miles of that pipe stacked in a hay field on Highway 200 east of Lake George, Minn., in November.
John Enger / MPR News

A proposed 610-mile pipeline that would move crude oil from North Dakota through northern Minnesota cleared a step in the regulatory process Monday.

Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman recommended the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission grant Enbridge Energy a certificate of need permit for the Sandpiper Pipeline project. If approved, 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day could flow from Tioga, N.D., to Superior, Wis.

In his report to the PUC, Lipman said that, during several hearings, "no party demonstrated [under Minnesota statute] that there was a more reasonable and prudent alternative to the proposed project."

"Everyone agrees that an oil spill in Aitkin County or Carlton County would be very bad," Lipman wrote, "whether it would be or less likely for a pipeline to break in another community, no one says for sure."

The proposed Sandpiper route would zigzag about 300 miles across Minnesota. Roughly three-quarters of its path would follow existing utility corridors — to Enbridge's terminal in Clearbrook, in northwest Minnesota, and south to Park Rapids before turning east to the company's hub in Superior.

Company officials say a new pipeline would ease rail congestion, while environmentalists counter that a spill could have a devastating impact because of its proximity to some of Minnesota's cleanest, clearest lakes.

"We are disappointed with Judge Lipman's decision," said Richard Smith, president of Friends of the Headwaters, a citizen group that opposes the Sandpiper route, which skirts Itasca State Park, where the Mississippi River begins. "But we are confident that the Public Utilities Commission will see that Enbridge's proposed route is not in the state's interest. It puts far too many of our natural resources at risk, when better, alternative routes are available."

Sandpiper pipeline
A map of the proposed Sandpiper pipeline.
Courtesy of Enbridge

Scott Lucas, watershed project manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said some lakes in Sandpiper's path have limited access or none at all, which could make spill cleanup efforts difficult.

He said the pipeline's high capacity — at 600,000 barrels per day — poses a risk to the surrounding environment and natural habitat. 

"If you think about the pressure that that encompasses, we're talking about roughly twice the pressure of a fire hose, for example," Lucas said. "If there is a rupture, even if it's a rupture that's immediately responded to, is going to have significant environmental impact, you're going to lose a lot of oil very fast."

But Enbridge officials said pipelines are the safest way to move crude oil through the state. The project would also generate an additional $25 million in annual property taxes and 1,500 construction jobs, according to Enbridge estimates.

"Enbridge's proposed Sandpiper route provides the best balance for the State of Minnesota," a company statement said. "It is the shortest and most energy-efficient; impacts fewer landowners, cities and towns, and fewer natural resources overall."

A laborers union from Minnesota and North Dakota also hailed the judge's recommendation. A statement from Kevin Pranis, organizing director for the Minnesota Laborers Union, said Lipman's "findings are a step in the right direction, but we will not rest until the project is finally approved."

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will review the judge's recommendation and have final say. If approved, Enbridge can move forward and slightly tweak the route if necessary.

The proposed Sandpiper service date is sometime in 2017, according to Enbridge.