Minnesota Public Utilities Commission staff say Enbridge Energy's proposed Line 3 oil pipeline replacement should get the state's approval, and that the company's new route would have the least impact on the environment.
The PUC report, released last week, muddies the yearslong regulatory process for Enbridge's controversial pipeline plan. It also differs from the Minnesota Department of Commerce's opinion that Line 3 is unnecessary for the state.
Minnesota's five public utilities commissioners will have the final say on whether to grant Enbridge approval to replace its aging Line 3 pipeline with a new one along a different route.
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The PUC has scheduled four days of hearings starting Monday to decide if a Line 3 replacement is necessary. A decision is expected at the end of June.
Opponents of the pipeline say it threatens northern Minnesota's sensitive environment, violates Native treaty rights and impedes what should be a quicker societal movement away from fossil fuels.
People in favor of the new Line 3 say it will bring economic benefits to the region and help feed demand for oil in a safer manner than if trains or trucks transported the crude.
"We feel pretty strongly that if you have all the information and you look at the facts and the details and you look at the consequences of not doing it, it's a pretty straightforward call, said Bob Schoneberger, CEO of Duluth-based United Piping.
Andy Pearson, a staffer for anti-pipeline climate action group Minnesota 350 said he and other opponents were disappointed that PUC staff concluded building the new line would lead to less environmental damage.
"These briefing papers appear to take the position that need is justified in any case, which isn't backed up anywhere else in the record, so it appears the PUC staff is stepping way out of line and making their own recommendations," he said. The PUC staff's recommendation is nonbinding, as are opinions from the commerce department and an administrative law judge, who have also formally weighed in on the project.
The commerce department says Minnesota doesn't need the pipeline, in part because refineries in the state and the Midwest already receive all the oil they need.
The judge recommended Enbridge get Minnesota's approval to replace Line 3, but along its current route instead of the new one. Enbridge had planned to leave the old line in the ground, but recently told landowners along the route that they'd remove the old line upon their request.
Commissioners have wide array of options for Line 3 decision
The utilities commissioners have many options for what to do regarding Line 3. They could outright deny it, or agree with the staff conclusion and grant a certificate of need.
Or they could approve Enbridge's plan but only under certain conditions. The commissioners could choose some combination of 12 different conditions, such as requiring renewable energy to offset the pipeline's impact or setting up a fund to remove the old line.
• Full coverage: The Line 3 debateScott Strand, an attorney who represents anti-pipeline group Friends of the Headwaters, has seen plenty of examples at the PUC where the commission does not adopt staff recommendations.
He said this may be the most complicated oil pipeline decision the commission has ever had to make.
"I don't think they've explored a lot of these issues in really great depth," he said.