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New environmental review weighs alternative routes for Enbridge pipeline

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Updated: 2:20 p.m. | Posted: 8:02 a.m.

A new draft environmental impact statement on Enbridge's proposed "Line 3" oil pipeline shows that the company's preferred route has some advantages, like affecting fewer drinking water resources than alternative routes proposed. 

But the path Enbridge wants to take would also cross close to more high-quality wild rice waters than other possible routes, and affect more areas used for tourism and recreation. 

Those are just a few examples of the many competing interests state regulators will have to balance as they decide whether to approve Enbridge's application for a replacement pipeline that would cross more than 300 miles of northern Minnesota, and carry enough oil to fill 48 Olympic sized swimming pools, every day. 

The report released Monday doesn't make a decision on the proposed pipeline, which would cost Enbridge $2.1 billion to build across Minnesota alone. 

The public now has two months to weigh in on the document, with 22 public meetings scheduled for June. A final decision is not expected until next April. If it's approved, the pipeline could be operating by the end of 2019, Enbridge said. 

The much-anticipated environmental review marks a new era for oil pipeline projects in Minnesota, which used to fly mostly under the radar. But in recent years, they have become the subject of intense scrutiny, especially after protests erupted over the Dakota Access pipeline in North and South Dakota. 

Enbridge built Line 3 in the 1960s to transport heavy Canadian crude from the oil sands region of Alberta to refineries in the U.S. It crosses about a 340-mile swath of northern Minnesota from near the northwest corner of the state to its pipeline hub in Superior, Wis. 

It's part of the company's larger pipeline system that carries nearly 3 million gallons of oil a day from Canada, across northern Minnesota. 

But Line 3 requires extensive maintenance. It's become corroded and cracked in places, requiring 950 excavations in the past ten years. Since 1990, there have been 15 failures of Line 3 that each released more than 50 barrels of oil, according to the study. 

"Line 3 is safe, and continues to undergo inspections to ensure it remains safe," said Laura Kennett, asset integrity supervisor for Enbridge. "However the intensity of the maintenance program on Line 3 is expected to increase ... which is a big factor in why Enbridge is pursuing replacement."

Replacing the line would also enable Enbridge to pump more oil. Enbridge has had to reduce pressure on the pipeline to maintain safety, which has restricted its capacity to 390,000 barrels a day. A new pipeline would nearly double that capacity, to 760,000 barrels.

But when that oil is eventually burned, pipeline opponents say, it will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, and more climate change. 

"Building these pipelines is a step in the wrong direction," said Andy Pearson with the group MN350. "We need investment in energy resources, but we need it to come in the form of lower carbon alternatives like solar and wind." 

Pipeline critics also have challenged Enbridge's preferred route for the new pipeline. The new path would follow the old route to Clearbrook, in northwest Minnesota. But from there it would cut south to around Park Rapids, and then travel east toward Superior.

Critics say potential spills would threaten a region rich in lakes, rivers and wild rice waters. The environmental study also notes that it crosses a disputed section of the White Earth Indian reservation, as well as ceded territory that tribal members value for wild rice, hunting and fishing. 

The report analyzed four alternate paths for the pipeline to take across northern Minnesota to end in Superior. One of those routes loops south of Mille Lacs Lake. Another would be moved north of the current corridor, while two options would keep the new pipeline in roughly the same path as the old one. 

The draft environmental review weighs the costs and benefits of several different alternatives to Enbridge's proposed project, including using the existing Line 3, transporting oil by train or truck, or creating an entirely new pipeline route that bypasses northern Minnesota and instead flows south to Illinois.

The options all offer different costs and benefits. Trucks and trains are more likely to have smaller spills. Pipelines are less likely to have spills in the first place, but when they occur, they tend to be much larger. 

The average release of crude oil from a truck spill is 16 barrels; 40 barrels from a train accident; and 462 barrels from a pipeline release. 

The study also analyzes social and economic impacts. "The Line 3 Replacement Program will support more than 1,500 Minnesota construction jobs," said Harry Melander, cofounder of Jobs for Minnesotans and president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council. "These are jobs that sustain families."

The pipelines also generate millions of dollars in local tax revenue. 

Others argue the oil that would be transported through Line 3 doesn't benefit Minnesota. It passes through to refineries elsewhere in the Midwest, or, potentially, to overseas markets. 

"This is the wrong time to be doubling oil pipeline capacity," said Kevin Lee, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, "just so a private corporation can access global markets?"