For state utility regulators, it’s Line 3 all over again

A state court overturned the project's environmental review; the PUC has to decide whether to OK a revised version

PUC commissioners listen during a public hearing.
PUC Commissioners John Tuma, Katie Sieben and Matt Schuerger take in comments on the Line 3 oil pipeline from the public Friday during a hearing at the Senate Office Building in St. Paul. A year and a half after it was first approved, the controversial project is as much of a lightning rod as ever.
Elizabeth Flores | Star Tribune via AP

This week, it’s deja vu all over again for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

More than a year and a half ago, the commission — a five-member panel of state regulators that oversees pipelines and monopoly utilities — unanimously approved Enbridge Energy’s proposal to replace an aging oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

The proposed Line 3 route takes a winding path across Minnesota
The proposed Line 3 route takes a winding path across Minnesota
MPR News Graphic

The controversial project — to build a brand-new pipeline that would replace the current Line 3, which carries crude oil from the Canadian tar sands across the northern part of the state — was formally proposed in 2015. Since then, it has undergone a route change and several modifications as it wound its way through the regulatory approval process.

With the PUC’s approvals in the summer of 2018, it looked as though the project was on its way to being built.

But on Monday, commissioners will again take up the question of Line 3. A state court overturned the project's environmental review last summer, and the PUC now has to decide whether to approve the revised version.

Why is Line 3 in front of the PUC again?

In one of a series of challenges to the controversial project, the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected a required environmental review — called an environmental impact statement — that had been prepared for the project by the state Department of Commerce. The review assessed the possible impacts of an oil spill along the pipeline’s route, but did not look at impacts of a potential spill on Lake Superior.

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The appeals court said the review it didn't adequately address the potential impact of a spill in the Lake Superior watershed, and ordered a new study that would also analyze the impacts that a hypothetical spill might have on the lake.

Those key approvals the PUC granted to the Line 3 project in 2018 — a certificate of need and a route permit — were invalidated when the court sent the study back to the Commerce Department to be redone. The findings of the rejected environmental impact statement factored significantly into both.

And now that the Department of Commerce has updated its environmental review, the process resumes: It began with a public hearing on Friday, in which supporters and opponents of the project spent the day voicing their opinions to commissioners.

A room filled with Minnesotans at a PUC hearing.
A packed room listens as members of the public offered comments on the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline project during a hearing at the Senate Office Building Friday in St. Paul.
Elizabeth Flores | Star Tribune via AP

The Line 3 replacement project has faced intense opposition from the start: From Native American groups who say it threatens treaty rights; from groups concerned about damage to lakes and rivers; and from climate change activists concerned that more oil means more greenhouse gas emissions.

It's also drawn strong support from labor and industry groups for the thousands of construction jobs Enbridge says it would create — and from local government officials for the tax revenue the would likely generate.

Those two sides were out in force again last week in St. Paul to make their voices heard, one more time, in front of the Public Utilities Commission.

That process continues with the PUC’s meeting this week, in which commissioners will hear once again from the official parties in the case — including Enbridge, the state department of commerce and several groups opposed to the project.

What will the PUC have to consider this week?

At their meeting this week in St. Paul, commissioners must first decide whether to accept the revised environmental review.

Several pipeline opponents say the new review wasn't comprehensive enough, arguing that it minimizes the risk that oil spilled from the pipeline poses to the Duluth-Superior harbor and Lake Superior.

Line 3 supporters, though, say the new study underscores the need for the project. They argue the whole point of building a new pipeline — to replace the aging one currently in operation — is to reduce the likelihood of a spill.

Supporters of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3.
Backers of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline park a truck near the State Capitol in St. Paul Friday, carrying pipeline segments signed by people who support the project.
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo

"That’s why the commission made its conclusion unanimously last time, and it’s why we think it will make the same conclusion this time, in order to protect our natural resources," said Kevin Pranis, a spokesperson for the Laborers International Union of North America.

What are the PUC’s options?

If the PUC decides to approve the revised environmental impact statement, it must then take up those key permits again.

The commissioners could immediately approve the key permits — the certificate of need and the route permit — they granted to Enbridge in 2018. Or they could decide to gather more input before making their final decision.

"If they do it right away, it kind of looks like they've pre-decided that they're going to find that EIS adequate,” said Paul Blackburn, an attorney representing the Sierra Club and Honor the Earth, two groups opposing the pipeline.

Opponents of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its Line 3 pipeline.
Opponents of the Line 3 project hold a demonstration Friday before a hearing hosted by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in St. Paul.
Steve Karnowski | AP

It will be a different Public Utilities Commission deciding Line 3’s fate this time around. Commissioner Valerie Means has replaced former chair Nancy Lange, and commissioner Dan Lipschultz’s term expired last month. Gov. Tim Walz has not yet named a successor.

That means only four commissioners will be voting on the Line 3 project this week. But any action the PUC takes still requires the support of at least three commissioners.

What happens next?

Even if the PUC deems the revised environmental impact statement adequate, and grants Enbridge a certificate of need and a route permit, the Line 3 project could still face additional challenges.

Opponents could first ask the PUC to reconsider its decision. Then, groups could again challenge the permits before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

And if the PUC again gives its approval to the project, Enbridge would then have to secure additional permits to build the pipeline — from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

If it clears those additional hurdles, Enbridge has said it anticipates beginning construction later this year.