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Oil pipeline debate heating up again in northern Minnesota

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After 22 public hearings, long proceedings before the state Public Utilities Commission and a Minnesota Court of Appeals case, two proposed pipelines that would together carry more than one million barrels of oil per day across the northern part of the state find themselves again at the beginning of a long regulatory process. 

The Minnesota Department of Commerce is holding 12 scoping meetings across the state through Wednesday of next week. Public comment will help shape detailed environmental analyses of both proposed pipelines. 

The hearings were prompted by a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision last September. The ruling overturned a June 2015 decision by the utilities commission to grant the proposed Sandpiper pipeline a so-called "certificate of need," saying state regulators first needed to complete a full-blown environmental impact statement for the project. 

Calgary-based Enbridge has proposed two pipelines that would each stretch about 300 miles across the state. Sandpiper would carry 225,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken region of North Dakota to the company's hub in Clearbrook, Minn. From there it would carry 375,000 barrels per day to Superior, Wis. 

The company also plans to replace its existing Line 3, which was built in the 1960s and transports crude from the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada. By replacing the aging pipe, the company plans to boost the line's capacity back up to 760,000 barrels per day. 

Together, the Minnesota portions of both projects would cost around $5 billion, create thousands of construction jobs and contribute millions of dollars in local property tax revenue. 

But opponents say possible oil spills or leaks along the proposed pipeline routes would threaten the headwaters of the Mississippi River and other sensitive lakes and rivers in north-central Minnesota. Environmental groups had asked the utilities commission and eventually the appeals court for the more detailed environmental study. 

"The integrity and health of the Mississippi headwaters and the surrounding lake country is at risk of a potential tar sands oil spill," Duluth resident Linda Herron told state regulators at a public hearing in Carlton, Minn. on Thursday. "At the very least, these pipelines need to be rerouted to the least sensitive and water rich areas within Minnesota."

Enbridge's preferred route for the pipelines runs from Clearbrook, Minn., south to the Park Rapids area, and then east across the state to its pipeline terminal in Superior, Wis. 

Critics of that path have suggested several alternate routes that would avoid many of the lakes and rivers of north-central Minnesota, instead skirting the area to the west and south. Some alternatives would then turn back north to Superior; others would connect with Enbridge infrastructure in Illinois. 

"We are not anti-pipeline," said Steve Schulstrom with the group Carlton County Land Stewards. "We are 'anti put the pipeline in a bad place.'"

But Enbridge officials have said those alternate routes are longer, more expensive, and pose their own environmental concerns. Company spokesperson Shannon Gustafson said they spent 240,000 hours studying route options. "We look at what's best for people, communities and the environment," she said. "The route we have chosen we think is the best for all of those." 

Enbridge has agreements with 95 percent of landowners along the proposed pipeline routes, Gustafson added. 

The Department of Commerce is gathering input on how various alternatives should be evaluated and included in the environmental analysis. "At this point all alternatives are on the table," said Jamie MacAlister, environmental review manager with the department. Public comment will be accepted through May 26. 

The Department of Commerce plans to have a draft environmental impact statement done by spring of 2017, with a final EIS by next spring. 

That document will analyze the project's environmental, economic and social impacts. It will scrutinize not only Enbridge's proposed project, but a range of potential alternatives, including, presumably, some of the alternative routes that others have proposed. 

After the EIS is finalized, the Public Utilities Commission would then decide by the fall of next year on the permits Enbridge needs to build the two pipelines. 

If that happens, and the projects are approved, Enbridge says it could have the pipelines in service by 2019. 

"We are now pleased that this process is proceeding and that after almost three years there seems to be a roadmap for all parties to expect a fair and final evaluation on the merits of these projects," said Mike Franklin with the Minnesota Ag Energy Alliance. "Frankly they've been delayed far too long." 

There are three remaining meetings on the pipeline in Bagley, St. Paul and McGregor in the next week.