State watchdog office criticizes PUC’s public participation process

PUC commissioners listen during a public hearing.
PUC commissioners from left, John Tuma, Katie Sieben, center, and Matt Schuerger, took in comments and sentiments directly from the public regarding the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline during a hearing at the Senate Office Building on Jan. 31 in St. Paul.
Elizabeth Flores | Star Tribune via AP file

The Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report Monday criticizing the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, saying the state’s utility regulator has not done a good job helping the public — particularly Native American communities — participate in its complex proceedings.

The report looks back on how the five-member commission handled public participation over the past several years, particularly at meetings involving the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline replacement, a nearly $3 billion project proposed by the Canadian firm Enbridge Energy that the PUC ultimately approved

The report found that the commission has done a poor job educating the public about the roles of its partner agencies, including the state Department of Commerce; it hasn’t provided the public adequate resources to help the public participate in commission proceedings; and it wasn’t adequately prepared to administer meetings regarding Line 3. 

Specifically, the report found that the PUC failed to hold most of its Line 3 meetings in a larger venue, despite the large amount of public interest. The legislative auditor said the ticketing procedure the PUC implemented caused a number of problems, and barred several people who represented intervening parties in the case from attending.

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A room filled with Minnesotans at a PUC hearing.
A room filled with Minnesotans listened as many addressed a group of four PUC commissioners as they took in comments and sentiments directly from the public regarding the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline during a hearing in January.
Elizabeth Flores | Star Tribune via AP file

The report includes several recommendations, including that the PUC provide better resources to help the public understand its unique role and how better to take part in its proceedings. 

It also recommends that the state Legislature require notification of affected tribal governments whenever the notification of other affected governments is required. 

In a written response included with the report, the PUC said it’s been working to improve public engagement. Specifically, the five commissioners say they have adopted a tribal engagement and consultation policy. The agency has also added new public outreach positions. 

For years, the PUC toiled in relative obscurity. Its proceedings, largely to oversee Minnesota’s regulated electric utilities, were arcane, and to most casual observers anyway, kind of boring. 

Enbridge Energy’s proposal to replace its Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota, with a new, larger line, along a largely different route, thrust the PUC into the public spotlight. Crowds of boisterous proponents and opponents stood in long lines to pack meetings. 

Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, one of the official parties in the Line 3 proceedings, welcomed the findings of the office of the legislative auditor. 

“The PUC has a systemic blind spot in dealing with Native tribes, especially around energy issues, which now also extends to the majority of Minnesotans who also oppose Line 3,” she said. 

The Sierra Club’s North Star chapter director, Margaret Levin, called the report “further evidence that this pipeline never should have been approved, and it is critical that Gov. Walz do everything in his power to stop it once and for all.” 

Opponents of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its Line 3 pipeline.
Opponents of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota demonstrate on Jan. 31 before a hearing on the project before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in the state Capitol complex in St. Paul. The opponents say the project would aggravate climate change.
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo file

But Kevin Pranis, of the Minnesota and North Dakota region of the Laborers International Union of North America said the PUC is the state agency that’s most skilled at taking public input and incorporating it into decision-making.

“The commission’s process is far more transparent and open to the public than that of any other state agency in Minnesota, and Minnesota’s commission provides many more opportunities for public input than North Dakota’s commission,” Pranis said in testimony to the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

Any changes the PUC makes to its public participation process will not affect the Line 3 project. The commission approved the pipeline for a second time earlier this year, after a state court ordered that its environmental review needed to be revised. 

Enbridge has said it anticipates finishing construction of the pipeline next year. But the company still needs additional state permits, and further legal challenges are expected.