Updated: 3:18 p.m. | Posted: 2:03 p.m.
Opponents of the proposed Line 3 oil pipeline criticized several different route options Wednesday as arguments and questioning over the contentious project spilled into a fourth day of public hearings before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
Much of the discussion during the first three days of hearings has focused on whether a new pipeline is needed to carry crude oil from the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada, across northern Minnesota.
• Full coverage: The Line 3 debate • Podcast: Rivers of Oil
Calgary-based Enbridge Energy wants to replace its current Line 3, which is deteriorating and subject to increased and costly maintenance, with a new pipeline that could carry nearly twice as much oil along a new route across Minnesota.
Now the focus has shifted to what route the proposed pipeline should take if the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission determines there is a need for the project, a decision that's expected by the end of the week.
The commission is weighing several route alternatives, including Enbridge's preferred route, which would follow the existing pipeline corridor to Clearbrook, Minn., but would then cut south to near Park Rapids before swinging east across the state to the company's pipeline terminal in Superior, Wisc.
Many of the parties fighting the proposed pipeline lashed out against that preferred route in proceedings Wednesday.
Seth Bichler, attorney for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, called it "by far the worst alternative."
"The natural resources in that corridor are unique. Many of them are irreplaceable," said Scott Strand, an attorney representing Friends of the Headwaters. Strand said some areas are so remote that it would be difficult to reach them to repair and clean up a leak.
Commissioners pushed opponents of the project to identify a least objectionable route alternative if the state decides a new pipeline is needed. But representatives of several tribes and environmental groups were unwilling to choose between what they said were all bad options.
"All of them suck," said Paul Blackburn, attorney for the Native environmental group Honor the Earth.
The exception is the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. The current Line 3 travels through both the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations. The Leech Lake band has insisted throughout the proceedings that it will not permit a new pipeline to be routed across its land, despite a state administrative law judge's recent recommendation to replace the existing pipeline along its current route.
Enbridge selected its preferred route in part based on opposition from the Leech Lake band to replacing it in its current location. The company also argues the route poses less risk to the environment than competing alternatives.
Some commissioners showed interest in two route alternatives that would follow the company's preferred route south of the Leech Lake reservation, but then would cut north of Big Sandy Lake. One of those options would rejoin the existing pipeline corridor before continuing across the Fond du Lac reservation.
Big Sandy Lake is an area of great cultural importance to both the Fond du Lac band and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Enbridge attorney Christina Brusven said the company is not considering any route that crosses the Fond du Lac reservation. "We haven't heard a welcome into Fond du Lac, which leads to our conclusion that it's not a buildable route," she said.
Discussion again came back to a difficult balancing act that several commissioners appear to be juggling — whether to approve a new pipeline along a corridor that many parties strongly oppose, or whether to reject the new pipeline, in which case Enbridge has said it would continue to operate the existing, deteriorating line for at least the next 11 years.
"When we talk about structural safety, I think it's always in the best interest of policymakers to err on the side of safety," said commissioner Katie Sieben. She said allowing a corroding pipeline to transport oil would be like permitting traffic across a corroding bridge after the 35W bridge collapse.
"Ignoring real known safety risks I think is at our own peril," she said.
Enbridge has said repeatedly it could continue to operate the existing Line 3 safely, despite estimating a need for more than 6,000 maintenance digs over the next 15 years.
The existing line can be operated safely," said Enbridge attorney Christina Brusven. "A replacement is a safer alternative."
She argued that newer pipelines are less susceptible to spills because the steel is twice as thick as old pipes, it's made with steel of greater strength, it has modern coating and modern engineering techniques.
Fond du Lac attorney Seth Bichler argued that framing the decision as a choice between a new pipeline and allowing a deteriorating line to continue is a false premise.
"You can't base your decision on that," he said. "That's on the company. If they can't operate it safely, they need to shut it down."
PUC faces more criticism over public access to hearings
Wednesday's proceedings were delayed for nearly a half hour after the Sierra Club, one of the anti-pipeline groups given official status in the case, said one of its staffers wasn't allowed to enter the hearing room.
"My client has been denied the right to be seated in this room as a party and threatened with criminal prosecution without any written notice or justification," the group's contract attorney, Leili Fatehi told commissioners.
Chair Nancy Lange agreed to pause the meeting until the issue could be resolved. "Our staff have worked extremely hard to help execute these proceedings as best we can. I understand there can be glitches, there can be less-than-perfect outcomes," she said.
The Sierra Club staffer, Natalie Cook, said she was escorted out of the PUC building on Tuesday and was told she would be banned for a year for allegedly violating the commission's rules related to tickets to attend the hearings. In addition to being the point person for Fatehi, Cook said she has also been responsible for organizing pipeline opponents wanting to attend the hearings.
"This very extreme escalation of getting kicked out yesterday made it so I really couldn't do any parts of my job," she said in an interview.
Cook was allowed back in on Wednesday. The PUC declined an interview request by MPR News on the matter.
The incident followed a dispute last week over the PUC's first-come-first-served ticketing policy, which incentivized both supporters and opponents to organize ways to get tickets early in the morning and transfer them to people wanting to attend the hearings later in the day. The system prompted both sides to wait in line as early as 5:30 a.m. each day, sometimes in the rain, for a chance to attend the meetings in person.
"I don't know too many people who want to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning to get a ticket. It's not like it's an iPhone 11 coming out," said Bob Schoenberger, founder of Minnesotans for Line 3, adding that it can be especially challenging for people who live outside the metro area. But he said the PUC's ticketing system "is what it is."
"It's easy to be armchair quarterback. We could probably all come up with a different plan, but (PUC staff) did the best they could," he said.