Line 3 pipeline opponents file suit challenging state approval

Line three proponents and opponents' buses sit across the street.
Line 3 proponents and opponents' buses outside the Public Utilities Commission in St. Paul in June.
Lacey Young | MPR News file

Updated: Dec. 20, 8:59 a.m. | Posted: Dec. 19., 6 p.m.

Several environmental groups and two northern Minnesota Native American tribes have filed separate lawsuits to try to block the state's recent approval of the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project.

The White Earth and Red Lake Ojibwe, together with the Sierra Club and Honor the Earth environmental organizations, filed a joint appeal Wednesday at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The northern Minnesota-based group Friends of the Headwaters filed a separate challenge.

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They're asking the court to overturn the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's June 28 decision to grant the Line 3 project a certificate of need, a crucial approval signifying that the project is needed by the state of Minnesota.

Line 3 deliberations at the Minnesota PUC
A Line 3 pipeline opponent hung from a tripod outside the state PUC offices in June.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The Calgary-based Enbridge energy company needed the PUC's approval in order to build the $2.6 billion project across the northern half of the state.

In that decision, the PUC determined that the safety benefits of allowing Enbridge to replace the old, corroding Line 3 pipeline with a larger, modern line outweighed the risks of allowing the old pipeline to continue to operate.

In their court challenges, the groups argued that reasoning is flawed.

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 in June.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

"There is no need for this pipeline as the world reduces oil consumption in the face of increasing climate change," said Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth.

The groups argued that Enbridge failed to provide a long-term energy forecast to prove that the increased capacity the new pipeline would provide is needed in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce also pressed that argument before the Public Utilities Commission. Friends of the Headwaters attorney Scott Strand said the agency's support could carry weight at the court of appeals.

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"The PUC and Department of Commerce are usually in sync, and when they're not, that... sets off a bell that suggests that maybe something has gone awry here," said Strand.

Enbridge argues a new Line 3 is needed to meet Minnesota's energy needs, and can better protect the environment than the existing pipeline.

"Enbridge believes the courts will reaffirm the MPUC's process and decisions, which were made in accordance with the law based on full and complete evidence developed and presented over years of open and transparent regulatory and environmental review processes," said spokesperson Juli Kellner.

Friends of the Headwaters prevailed in an earlier pipeline-related lawsuit filed at the Court of Appeals in 2015, which led to Enbridge preparing a full Environmental Impact Statement on Line 3, the first time an EIS — an intensive environmental study — has been conducted for a pipeline proposal in Minnesota.

State regulators completed that environmental review in May 2018, just before the PUC granted the certificate of need. Tribes and environmental groups filed lawsuits three months later, challenging the PUC's acceptance of that study.

More lawsuits are expected.

A student-led group called the Youth Climate Intervenors also plans to challenge the Line 3 certificate of need later this week.

Tribes and citizen groups will also still have an opportunity to challenge the state's approval of a route permit for Line 3, after the PUC denied their requests last week to reconsider the permit regulators issued in June that allows Enbridge to build the new line along a different corridor across the state, south of the current route.

And while the project has secured most of the crucial regulatory backing it needed to begin work on the new Line 3, Enbridge still needs to obtain several local, state and federal permits before it can begin installing the pipeline.

The company has said it plans to begin construction in the first quarter of 2019, and have the new pipeline in service by the end of that year.