PUC backs Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline, sets route

Activist Winona LaDuke speaks at a press conference.
Activist Winona LaDuke speaks at a press conference outside of the Public Utilities Commission in St. Paul, Minn. on Thursday, June 28, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated 7:46 p.m. | Posted 12:14 p.m.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved a new Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline after an emotional day of deliberations over replacing corroding infrastructure versus limiting future risks to water resources and the climate.

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Full coverage of the Line 3 debate

The decision came with several conditions, including a decommissioning trust fund to ensure the new pipeline will be retired responsibly decades from now. Enbridge will also be required to follow through on a promise to landowners to remove portions of the old Line 3 upon request.

While commissioners voted 5-0 for the certificate, they were divided over the route. Late Thursday afternoon the panel in a 3-2 vote agreed to run the line along Enbridge's preferred route with modifications to avoid Big Sandy Lake.

It's not clear whether that change will change minds.

Pipeline supporters and opponents wait in the hall.
Pipeline supporters and opponents wait in the hall outside of the Public Utility Commission hearing room in St. Paul, Minn. on Thursday, June 18, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It's a defeat for environmental groups and tribal leaders who had uniformly backed an alternate route that went much farther south. They can challenge the PUC decision in court. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa said late Thursday it was prepared to appeal.

In a statement sent Thursday evening, Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said the company was pleased with the decision, calling it a good outcome for the state.

The proposed Line 3 route takes a winding path across Minnesota
The Minnesota Public Utilities approved Enbridge's new Line 3 route with a couple exceptions to avoid sensitive areas near lakes where wild rice grows.
William Lager | MPR News Graphic

"Replacing Line 3 is first and foremost about the safety and integrity of this critical energy infrastructure," he said. "This project will also help ensure Minnesota and area refineries reliably receive the crude oil supply they need for the benefit of all Minnesotans and the surrounding region."

The statement went on to say that the decision left the estimated cost of the project "materially unchanged," and that the company expects to have the pipeline in-service sometime next year.

The route decision capped a long day of deliberations for the panel.

PUC Chair Nancy Lange broke down at one point, grabbing a handful of tissues and expressing how conflicted she was about allowing fossil fuels to cross the state for decades to come.

"How would I feel if I woke up in five years and that line had leaked?" Lange said, referring to the possibility that the old Line 3 would continue operating, despite safety risks, if commissioners denied the proposal to replace it.

The conditions placed on the certificate of need — and a later decision about the new Line 3 route — will influence whether and how soon the company can move forward.

Lange said the commission has "limited authority over the transportation sector in Minnesota," in contrast to the commission's oversight of electric utilities and forcing them to embrace clean energy.

Commissioner Katie Sieben, a former DFL state senator and the commission's newest member, said she believes approving the pipeline is in the state's best interest. She stressed that the alternative would be allowing a 1960s-era pipeline to remain operating and put Minnesota's water resources and Indian reservations at risk.

Youth climate intervener Nolan Berglund and activist Winona LaDuke.
Youth climate intervener Nolan Berglund and activist Winona LaDuke sit in a Public Utilities Commission hearing in St. Paul, Minn. on Thursday, June 28, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The old Line 3 "has similar integrity issues as other pipelines that have failed," Sieben said.

The pipeline is in "horrific condition," added Commissioner Matt Schuerger, an engineer who lists no political affiliation. "It is clear, and it is unrefuted."

Commissioner Dan Lipschultz agreed with the others that, like it or not, they were forced to say yes to the new pipeline.

"It feels like it's a gun to our head," Lipschultz said of the threat the old Line 3 posed.

But Lipschultz, a Democrat, also encouraged those in the room to move beyond the "doom and gloom" and remember how Minnesota's electricity sector has been transitioning away from fossil fuels.

"If you think about the changes in the electric utility industry, I think you have to look ahead at what is possible in the transportation sector," Lipschultz said, adding that the market, not just policy, now favors renewable energy in a lot of circumstances.

Line 3 deliberations at the Minnesota PUC
Ben, a Line 3 pipeline opponent who only wants his first name to be used, hangs from a tripod in the middle of a downtown St. Paul street, just outside the state PUC offices. Police eventually talked him down.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Sieben and Lipschultz voted against Enbridge's preferred route, even with the modifications, citing the tribes' preferences. Sieben said she would have wanted the line to mostly follow the existing Line 3 route.

Tribal leaders and activists vowed to fight the pipeline despite Thursday's decisions.

"Commissioners, this is our future, and we will not let it stand," Brent Murcia, a member of the Youth Climate Intervenors, said just before the PUC recessed for lunch. Murcia was part of activists in their teens and 20s who have had an official seat at the table during the Line 3 proceedings because climate change will disproportionately affect them.

The fifth day of hearings over the proposed Line 3 oil pipeline began early Thursday with passionate supporters and opponents lining up before 5 a.m. for a chance to witness an historic decision over the future of oil transportation in the state.

One protester was cited by police for blocking traffic by suspending himself in the air above a structure roughly resembling a teepee with the message, "Expect Resistance."

Pipeline supporters were also out in force, wearing bright colored T-shirts and their "Minnesotans for Line 3" bus parked nearby.

Bob Schoneberger, who works for United Piping and also represents the group Minnesotans for Line 3, applauded the decision.

"It was nice to hear the commissioners agree with what we felt pretty strongly about all along," he said.

"You can't close the valve and make this go away," he said of the country's oil needs. "To the extent we can make reliable supply, it helps keep energy prices low, it keeps it affordable for those who struggle, and closing the valve is going to hurt people."

Outside the commission hearing room, White Earth tribal member Dawn Goodwind said the proposed pipeline route will travel through lands covered by an 1855 treaty.

"This is our time to assert those rights, and make them honor our treaties," she said. "Our treaties are guaranteed under the Constitution. It's the supreme law of the land. And they don't get it, they don't want to get it, and we're all prepared to stand up for our rights."

After the vote, Gov. Mark Dayton urged people to express themselves peacefully and said the PUC decision "only allows Enbridge to begin to apply for a least 29 required federal, state and local permits ... construction cannot and will not begin unless Enbridge receives all required permit approvals."