In second Line 3 approval, state regulators take up safety, spills — and climate change

The Line 3 line runs close to Pike Bay, between the railroad and Hwy. 2.
Enbridge Energy's current Line 3 pipeline runs close to Pike Bay and between the railroad and Highway 2 near Cass Lake, Minn., on the Leech Lake reservation. The $2.9 billion project proposes to replace an aging pipeline, built in the 1960s, with a newer pipeline that the company says will be safer and built with the latest technologies. Opponents of the project say the new pipeline will risk contaminating Minnesotan forests, wild rice beds, lakes and rivers in the event of a spill and will contribute to global warming.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2018

Minnesota utility regulators have once again given their blessing to Line 3, the oil pipeline replacement project Enbridge Energy has proposed for northern Minnesota — but not before having a sometimes heated discussion about the project's impact on climate change.

About a year and a half ago, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission first approved Line 3. But after the state appeals court threw out the project's environmental review, the project was back in front of commissioners.

They were faced with three decisions:

First, whether to approve the revised environmental study — which had been updated to include analysis of a potential oil spill in the Lake Superior basin.

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Then, whether to reissue the project's certificate of need — essentially, a declaration that the state needs the project.

And last, whether to reapprove the project's route.

The last time Line 3 came before the commission — in June 2018 — the commissioners approved the need for Line 3 and the environmental impact study unanimously.

But Monday, Commissioner Matt Schuerger said several things had changed since 2018 that caused him to change his vote on all three questions before the PUC.

He said it was no longer clear whether there was proven demand for the extra oil the pipeline would carry — nearly twice the capacity of the current Line 3. And he said the science of climate change has become even clearer in the last year and a half.

"We will not flip the switch and stop using oil, I don’t contend that,” he said during deliberations, “but I do understand that there are actions being taken by jurisdictions around the world, around the country and especially in this state, to act and change the way we use energy."

Groups opposing the Line 3 project have argued that building a new pipeline undermines efforts the state is making to address climate change: The extra crude oil the expanded pipeline would carry would eventually be burned, creating more greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.

Line 3 before the PUC
Protesters hold a sign inside the room where the state Public Utilities Commission Monday gave its blessing to Line 3, the oil pipeline replacement project Enbridge Energy has proposed for northern Minnesota.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

“It no longer makes sense to invest and build new infrastructure such as this project,” Schuerger said.

Commission Chair Katie Sieben said she didn’t fundamentally disagree with any of Schuerger’s conclusions, especially around climate change.

“I agree with you, and I’m an ally with you on that," she told him.

But she said that the Line 3 decision wasn't simply about climate.

"This is about the reality of the situation that is in northern Minnesota right now — that there is a deteriorating, decrepit old pipe," she said. She argued that building a new pipeline is preferable to continuing to operate the 1960s-era pipeline, which is corroding and requires extensive maintenance.

Sieben said she was also concerned about the additional train traffic that could be expected to transport additional oil, if the current Line 3 were not replaced.

Line 3 before the PUC
A supporter of the pipeline stands with a sign in downtown St. Paul on Monday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

In the end, the other two commissioners — Valerie Means and John Tuma — sided with Sieben and approved the certificate of need, the route permit and the revised environmental review on identical three-to-one votes.

Two commissioners cited the concerns of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in making their decisions. The band's environmental director, Benjamin Benoit, said the tribe supports the new Line 3 so that the old one — which runs through the Leech Lake reservation in north-central Minnesota — can be shut down. The new pipeline would take a different route, skirting Hubbard and Cass counties far to the south of the current line.

The proposed Line 3 route takes a winding path across Minnesota
The proposed Line 3 route takes a winding path across Minnesota.
William Lager | MPR News Graphic

"The damage to the environment if a significant spill or release occurred within the current Line 3 on the Leech Lake Reservation would be nothing short of catastrophic for Leech Lake citizens and their way of life," Benoit said.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has supported routing the new pipeline through its reservation. But the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe all oppose the project.

Joe Plummer, attorney for the Red Lake Nation and a member of the Leech Lake Band, accused Enbridge of dividing the tribes.

Commissioner John Tuma bristled at the suggestion.

"I just reject that,” Tuma said. “The truth is, this is a tough decision. We’ve all known this is a tough decision. It was a decision that we had to take seriously and we have."

Later, Brent Murcia, a member of the Youth Climate Intervenors, thanked Schuerger “for being on the right side of history."

He hinted that his group will again challenge the PUC in court. "We are not finished yet,” he said, “and we will see you all soon.”

The Department of Commerce, which represents the public interest in cases before the PUC, also disagreed with the commission’s approval of the certificate of need, repeating the same argument it made a year and a half ago in the first round of PUC proceedings.

"Enbridge has not provided a long-range energy demand forecast as required by Minnesota law,” said Katherine Hinderlie, an attorney for the department’s energy division. “Therefore [the commerce department’s Division of Energy Resources] stands by its previous filings, and continues to recommend that it deny Enbridge a certificate of need.”

After the hearing, Enbridge's Barry Simonson applauded the commissioners’ vote. He called Line 3 a safety- and maintenance-driven project.

"We've conducted thousands of hours of environmental study,” he said. “Public participation has been an extremely important part of the process. And we'll continue to be transparent and make sure that this pipeline is replaced in a safe manner."

Simonson said the company has applied for the remaining environmental permits it still needs from state and federal regulators. He declined to say when construction on Line 3 might begin. But previously Enbridge officials have said they hope it starts later this year.

If and when they do, Winona LaDuke, program director for the group Honor the Earth said protesters will be waiting.

Water protectors will be there,” she said outside the meeting Monday afternoon. “We live there. It is an egregious thing they are doing to a people.”

Additional challenges to the project are also likely, meaning the Line 3 story is still far from over.