Walz administration pressed to take a stand on Line 3 oil pipeline project

Aitkin Co. Commissioner Marcotte and Pennington Co. Commissioner Peterson
Aitkin County Commissioner Anne Marcotte and Pennington County Commissioner Neil Peterson deliver a letter to Gov. Tim Walz's office on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Just a few days into his administration, Gov. Tim Walz is already being challenged to take a stand on a divisive oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota.

Local officials and other backers of Enbridge Energy's Line 3 pipeline replacement project delivered a letter Thursday signed by 2,500 people and organizations. The letter asks that Walz rescind a Department of Commerce legal appeal the previous administration filed in December that has the potential to stall the project.

The group also asked Walz to expedite the remaining permits Enbridge needs before the company can begin construction this year. In asking for the governor's support of the project, the group said it would replace aging infrastructure and protect the state's natural resources while providing well-paying jobs.

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Pennington County Commissioner Neil Peterson said he drove 300 miles to deliver the letter to the governor.

"I don't have a good feel for what's going on," he said of the new administration. "It's new. He's only been in office two days. That's why we'd like to have a word with him. Our local people are really in support of this."

State utility regulators approved a certificate of need and route permit for Line 3 in June amid intense opposition from environmental groups and tribes, who argued that Minnesota doesn't need the pipeline, that it would risk damage to sensitive lakes and rivers and that it would exacerbate climate change.

Since then, several groups have filed suit to challenge the state's approval of the pipeline, including the Minnesota Department of Commerce itself, which argued that Enbridge failed to prove there was sufficient demand for the oil the pipeline would transport.

Opponents and supporters of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline wait.
Opponents and supporters of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline wait outside of the Minnesota Senate Building before a hearing in St. Paul, Minn. on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Pipeline opponents have also been lobbying Walz since his victory.

A group of teenagers who met with Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan at the Capitol Wednesday to talk about climate change listed Line 3 opposition among the three policy objectives they think are most important for combating climate change in Minnesota. They asked Walz and his administration to continue the Dayton administration's legal challenge to the project's approval.

Natalie Cook, an organizer with the Sierra Club, said pipeline opponents are encouraged by Walz's commitment to combating climate change and upholding tribal sovereignty.

"We expect and hope that a new administration is going to look over the work of the past administration," she said, "and we anticipate that they will come to the same fact-based conclusions that Gov. Dayton's Department of Commerce did, which is this pipeline is not needed and possesses serious environmental and socioeconomic risks that outweigh the benefits."

Line 3 deliberations at the Minnesota PUC
Line 3 replacement project supporters, in green T-shirts and with green stickers, listen to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission deliberations on Enbridge Energy's proposed pipeline replacement project in June.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

The Walz administration hasn't yet taken a public position on the project since taking office. Walz said on the campaign trail that he supported Enbridge's efforts to replace its aging pipeline. During a debate in October, he said only that he'd make sure there is consensus in the project planning, so as to head off problems.

But Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, has opposed the project in the past.

Steve Kelley, the new state Department of Commerce Commissioner, said at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce event Wednesday that "The governor has asked the department to take another look, with the change of administrations, at the Enbridge litigation."

He added that, a few days into his new role as commerce commissioner, he hasn't finished that work yet.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report.