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Enbridge Energy's Line 3 oil pipeline project faces a major hurdle in Minnesota — getting a Certificate of Need from the state's Public Utilities Commission. A decision is expected later this week from the five-member panel. What is this commission that seemingly has a lot of power over whether a new oil pipeline can be built across the state?
What is the PUC?
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is a regulatory body with five members, all appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Minnesota Senate. Commissioners serve staggered, six-year terms and are paid $140,000 a year. The commission regulates monopoly utilities, including electricity, natural gas service and telecommunications. In 2005, the Minnesota Legislature added pipelines to the commission's jurisdiction in a bill that received bipartisan support and was signed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican.
Who is on the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission?
By law, no more than three of the five commission members can be from the same political party. That can lead to situations in which a governor of one party must appoint someone from the opposite party. All five of the current commissioners were appointed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Chair Nancy Lange was appointed in 2013, Dan Lipschultz in 2014, John Tuma in 2015, Matt Schuerger in 2016 and Katie Sieben in 2017.
Tuma is a former Republican lawmaker and Schuerger has no party affiliation. The three others are Democrats, including Sieben, who is a former state senator.
What are the qualifications for being appointed to the Public Utilities Commission?
Besides party affiliation requirements, one commissioner must reside outside of the seven-county metro area. Otherwise, the qualifications are broad, stating that commissioners "must be persons learned in the law, engineering, public accounting, property and utility valuation, finance, physical or natural sciences, production agriculture or natural resources." Tuma and Lipschultz have law degrees, Lange and Sieben have public policy degrees and Schuerger has business and engineering degrees.
What types of work do the PUC commissioners do?
Big, controversial decisions like the Line 3 oil pipeline, account for only part of their jobs. Most decisions are mundane and uncontroversial.
Here's an example of an agenda item from last month: "In the Matter of the Implementation of Processes for the Minnesota Telephone Assistance Plan Consistent with Changes in the Federal Lifeline Program."
But commissioners also must decide whether utilities like Xcel Energy should be allowed to increase rates on consumers. For all its decisions, the commission gets help from a staff of 50 people with expertise in finance, consumer affairs, law and other related areas. For bigger cases, including the Line 3 pipeline, the PUC makes a decision following a long, detailed process led by the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings. The process includes public meetings and comments, testimony by various interested parties and their experts, and recommendations by an administrative law judge.
Does the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission have the last word on pipeline projects, power plants and other decisions in its jurisdiction?
No. Decisions made by the PUC can be appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and, ultimately, to the Minnesota Supreme Court. In the Line 3 case currently before the commission, observers expect the losing party, whether Enbridge or pipeline opponents, will appeal the decision. In addition, there are other ways a PUC decision could be prevented from becoming reality. Depending on the circumstances, federal courts, the Legislature or Congress could step in to alter or reverse a PUC decision.