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Line 3 project delay leaves supporters, opponents hopeful

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Supporters of the Enbridge line 3 oil pipeline watch an opponent.
Supporters of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline Mike Zipko, right, and Scott Suder, left, watched an opponent hang from a tripod in the middle of Seventh Place before a Public Utilities Commission hearing in St. Paul last summer.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

The Enbridge Energy company announced Friday that its timeline for the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project will be delayed at least a few months — or potentially longer. But both opponents and supporters of the controversial project remain hopeful amid the delay. 

Last year, state regulators approved Enbridge's plan for replacing its aging Line 3 oil pipeline, which has been transporting oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, since the 1960s. The company said at the time that it anticipated having the new pipeline in service by the end of 2019.

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But the company still needs several state and federal permits before it can break ground on the Line 3 replacement. And Enbridge said Friday that the state of Minnesota has given the company a timeline for issuing those permits that will move the date it expects the new line to be in operation to the second half of 2020.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency told the company it expects to issues its permits by November 2019. Within a month or two after that, the company expects to secure its remaining federal permits. 

With the timeline from Minnesota regulators in hand, Enbridge said it is now developing a revised construction schedule — delayed at least six months, and possibly as much as a year — for Line 3. 

The new pipeline would replace one of Enbridge's five pipelines that carry oil across northern Minnesota. It has been a lightning rod from the start, and has drawn strong opposition from environmental groups concerned about potential oil spills, tribal groups and some tribal governments fighting it over possible  impacts on treaty land, and many fighting it on climate change grounds. 

As people join the public hearing they wear green shirts in support.
People wore green shirts in support of the Line 3 replacement at a 2017 public hearing.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News 2017

After issuing its press release Friday, the company declined further comment on the change. But Kevin Pranis, a spokesperson for the Laborers International Union of North America, said he anticipates that construction will begin as soon as the state and federal permits are in hand. 

"It's a little bit of a push back," he said, "but not a huge push back." 

Labor unions and industry groups and many local officials have supported the project, saying it would create thousands of construction jobs and generate millions of dollars in property tax revenue for the northern Minnesota counties the new pipeline will cross. They also argue that the new pipeline would be safer than the current Line 3, because it would replace an existing, aging pipeline. 

Pranis said that, for pipeline supporters, the announcement is a mixed bag. Many of LIUNA's  members are frustrated by the delay, he said, but they're relieved to have a clear schedule in place to obtain the remaining permits Enbridge needs. 

"I think we're frankly really relieved to have a clear plan going forward," Pranis said. "Would it be nice if this process had taken a year and a half instead of three and a half years? Yeah, that'd be great. But I think we'll be we'll be happy to get it done in a timely fashion."

Opponents of the pipeline applauded the delay — also tentatively. Tara Houska, a campaign manager and attorney from the group Honor the Earth, which is fighting the project, said she's pleased with the announcement, but she said it's not a final victory for pipeline opponents, by any measure. 

"I'm very pleased to hear that Enbridge is not getting what it thought it would get from the state of Minnesota, that it has to come back to shareholders and actually announce a delayed timeline yet again in this process," she said.

Houska said because Enbridge's announcement doesn't specifically mention when construction will begin, the timeline change hasn't altered her organization's opposition of the pipeline. They're still fighting Line 3 in court; they're still working to build public and legislative opposition to the pipeline; and Houska said they're still supporting activists on the ground in northern Minnesota. 

Enbridge Line 3 Oil Pipeline opponents wear printed news articles.
Line 3 oil pipeline opponents wore printed news articles highlighting natural disasters before a hearing inside the Minnesota Senate Building in November.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

"Until we see Enbridge taking its pipes out of the state of Minnesota and announcing that it is canceling the Line 3 project, we have not had a victory," Houska said.

In its statement Friday, Enbridge said it will have more specific details about when it will plan to bring the new pipeline into service, and what kind of financial impacts this delay will have, once it finalizes its construction schedule. 

And this summer, before it issues its final permits, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency plans to host a public comment period in which the public will be allowed to offer feedback on the draft permits. The agency also plans to incorporate several consultations with Native American tribes, beginning this month, as part of its permitting process. 

Gov. Tim Walz, whose Commerce Department continued a Dayton administration challenge to the Line 3 project last month, said Monday that Enbridge had "a fairly aggressive, optimistic timeline," but now the process is clear for all sides. 

"We can make sure that the interests of Minnesotans are served, that public comment period is valued, and decisions are made by best science and best process," the governor said Monday.

In the meantime, tribes, environmental groups and the state Department of Commerce have also filed several legal challenges against different parts of the Line 3 plan, and additional challenges are expected.