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State regulators deny opponents' petition to reconsider Line 3 pipeline route

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The multibillion-dollar Line 3 replacement is Enbridge's largest project.
A new segment of pipeline sits in the ground Sept. 2017 south of Superior, Wisc.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2017

State utility regulators denied requests Thursday  morning to reconsider a route permit they granted earlier this year to Enbridge Energy to replace its Line 3 oil pipeline. 

With little discussion, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously rejected the request, which had come from landowners, environmental groups and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. 

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The five-member commission voted unanimously in June to allow Enbridge to replace its aging Line 3 pipeline, which has been in operation since the 1960s. Enbridge says the replacement is necessary because the current Line 3 is corroded and cracked, which means it is more prone to leaking and can't transport as much oil as it has in the past.

At its June vote, the commission also took up the question of the pipeline's route, and in a 3-2 vote decided to allow Enbridge to build the new line along its preferred route, far south of the current line, with a few modifications.

Enbridge preferred that new route in part because the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe did not want a new pipeline to cross its reservation. About 20 percent of the current route across the state crosses the tribe's reservation. 

But many pipeline critics have argued that the new route opens up a second pipeline corridor across northern Minnesota to the risk of an oil spill and potential damage to wild rice and other resources. 

So in September, environmental and tribal groups petitioned the PUC, asking it to reconsider its decision.

When regulators denied their request Thursday morning, commissioner Katie Sieben said the replacement was for the good of the state. 

Line 3 deliberations at the Minnesota PUC
Minnesota PUC chair Nancy Lange (right) gets emotional as she and vice-chair Dan Lipschultz (left) deliberate the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project in June.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"The project will replace a pipeline that's in terrible shape with a new one that will get oil off roads and train tracks," she said. "I believe that's in Minnesota's best interest."

Sieben had originally opposed the route permit when the Commission approved it in June. But she said she supports it now because of several developments that have happened since then. Prime among them was an agreement that Enbridge reached with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to route a stretch of the new pipeline across the tribe's reservation.

Sieben also noted three other changes that made the move a positive one, in her mind: Tribes will have completed a cultural survey along the route before construction begins; landowners will be able to choose whether they want the old pipeline removed; and there will be a fund overseen by the state to ensure that the new pipe is not left in the ground when it eventually is no longer needed.

Pipeline proponents and industry groups celebrated Thursday's decision. In a statement, the company said, "The replacement of Line 3 is a safety and maintenance-driven project intended to protect the communities and the environment in northern Minnesota." 

Enbridge still needs more than 20 permits before it can begin construction. The company plans to have a new pipeline in operation by the end of 2019. But opponents have already filed lawsuits to try to block it, and are expected to file more.