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Judge: Minn. regulators should approve Line 3, but not on new route

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Construction vehicles transport a new section of pipeline.
Construction vehicles transport a new section of pipeline in Wisconsin.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

An administrative law judge on Monday recommended Minnesota regulators approve Enbridge's contentious Line 3 oil pipeline proposal, but only if it replaces the existing line in its current location — not a new route as Enbridge has proposed. 

In her decision, administrative law judge Ann O'Reilly cited integrity concerns with the current Line 3, which, at nearly 50 years old, is corroding and cracking, putting it at greater risk of leaking. Her recommendation is non-binding. 

The judge's report said building the Line 3 replacement along a new route has more consequences than benefits for Minnesota. However, the "cost-benefit analysis" changes if Enbridge routes its replacement pipeline along the current Line 3 route. 

O'Reilly heard from dozens of supporters and advocates for Line 3 in 16 public hearings she held around the state last fall. She also took testimony in a 12-day evidentiary hearing before reaching her non-binding recommendation. 

There were over 72,000 written comments submitted on the Line 3 project, according to O'Reilly's report, 68,244 of which opposed the pipeline.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to issue a final decision in June on a certificate of need and route permit for the pipeline. 

Enbridge has operated its existing, 1,000-mile Line 3 for nearly 50 years. But the pipeline is corroding, which necessitates extensive and expensive maintenance, the company contends.

Line 3 is part of Enbridge's mainline system, a network of pipelines that transports nearly 3 million barrels of oil every day into the U.S.

The pipeline was originally built to carry 760,000 barrels of oil a day. But the company has had to cut that nearly in half to maintain safety. The proposed new line would boost capacity back up to the original amount.

It would also cut a largely new corridor across northern Minnesota. It would track the original line's path to Clearbrook, Minn., but then jut south toward Park Rapids, Minn., before cutting east to the Wisconsin border south of Duluth.

The new route swings around the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations. 

But it crosses through land where Native Americans have hunted, fished and gathered for centuries, land dotted with some of the cleanest lakes in the state, some of the richest yielding wild rice waters in the state, and the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

That has raised sharp objections from conservation groups and Indian tribes. They point to major spills in Minnesota in 1991 and 2002, and more recently to the 840,000-gallon Kalamazoo River spill that required a $1.1 billion cleanup. They say the risk of a similar spill in northern Minnesota is too great.

In surprise testimony last September, the state Department of Commerce said Minnesota doesn't need the pipeline, in part because refineries in the state and the Midwest already receive all the oil they need.

The Department of Commerce analysis acknowledged that the new pipeline would help provide oil supplies more efficiently.

But it argued that's not as important as ensuring reliability or the adequacy of the state's oil supply, other factors the state is required to consider in making its decision whether to approve the pipeline.

Enbridge called the state's analysis "flawed," and said it "fails to take into account the immediate negative economic and supply consequences to Minnesota were Line 3 to be shut down."

If the project is approved, some opponents have threatened a repeat of the protests in North Dakota near the Standing Rock reservation that delayed work for months on the Dakota Access pipeline, in which Enbridge owns a stake. 

Similar concerns over the role of tar sands oil in climate change, and indigenous rights, have fueled opposition to Kinder Morgan's proposal to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to an export terminal in British Columbia.