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State regulators to revisit Line 3 environmental review; won't appeal court ruling

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Construction vehicles transport a new section of pipeline.
Construction vehicles transported a new section of pipeline to where it will reside in the ground September 1, 2017 south of Superior, Wisc.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2017

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Minnesota regulators announced Wednesday that they will revisit their environmental review of the Line 3 pipeline project, rather than asking the state Supreme Court to take up the case.

Last June, the state Public Utilities Commission approved Enbridge Energy's $2.6 billion plan to replace its aging Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. 

But early last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the PUC's approval of the project's environmental impact statement — a review of potential impacts the pipeline might have on the surrounding environment — saying it didn't adequately address the potential impact of a spill in the Lake Superior watershed.

In its ruling, the appeals court determined the environmental impact statement needed to be fixed, and sent it back to the PUC to address the issue. 

At the same time, the court upheld the majority of the more than 3,000-page environmental impact statement, and rejected most of the arguments made by pipeline opponents, including their contention that the study didn't sufficiently assess the pipeline's impacts on climate change, and didn't adequately analyze possible harm to tribal and cultural resources.

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 Nov. 19, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

The PUC, Enbridge Energy and opponents of Line 3 involved in the appeals court case had until Wednesday to petition the state Supreme Court to review the ruling.

PUC chair Katie Sieben said in a statement that the commission had decided to revisit the environmental review, instead of appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

"The public interest will be best served by addressing the deficiency identified in the Court of Appeals decision," she said in the statement, and while she didn't include a timeline for the process, she added that "the Commission will seek public comment and work expeditiously and in accordance with Minnesota laws and rules to address this issue." The PUC could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.

While neither the PUC nor Enbridge have appealed the June ruling, opponents of the controversial Line 3 project made their own requests Wednesday for the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court's decision.

In addition, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians asked the Supreme Court to review the appeals court's rejection of the argument that the environmental impact statement did not sufficiently address the potential impacts to historic and cultural resources. 

It's unclear what these latest developments will do to the Line 3 replacement project's timeline

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 June 18, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

In a joint statement after the appeals court ruling last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said that the permitting schedule for the pipeline project would need to be revised. The PUC signed off on the project a year ago, but Enbridge still needs several environmental permits from the DNR and MPCA, as well as from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, before construction can begin.

The Supreme Court has until Sept. 3 to decide whether it will take up the Line 3 opponents' case. The PUC has not yet issued a timeline for its review of the environmental impact statement. The Minnesota Department of Commerce, which completed the initial environmental impact statement for the pipeline, could be called on again to provide the new analysis. Attorneys involved in the case have estimated that process would likely take about six months.

Enbridge has previously said it expected to have state permits in hand by November, and that federal permits would take another month or two after that, which would have allowed Enbridge to begin construction early in 2020.

"While we're respectful of the process, it is imperative that the Line 3 replacement project move forward and we're hopeful the remaining permitting can be addressed in a timely manner," Enbridge vice president Guy Jarvis said in a statement Wednesday.

In May, Enbridge told industry analysts the total cost of building Line 3, which would stretch from Alberta, Canada, through northern Minnesota to Enbridge's pipeline hub in Superior, Wis., could exceed its previous estimate of $6.7 billion because of delays. The pipeline has been transporting oil across Minnesota since the 1960s.