Walz pressured over Line 3 pipeline project, as appeals deadline nears

Line 3 before the PUC
Opponents to the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project hold a sign outside the state Capitol after Minnesota utility regulators in St. Paul on Feb. 3 once again gave their blessing to the project — but not before having a sometimes heated discussion about the project's impact on climate change.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

The administration of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz faces a deadline this week to decide whether to try to overturn the approval of the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project, and pressure is coming in on all sides.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission signed off on the contentious project earlier this year for a second time. Now, groups opposing Line 3 have until Wednesday to appeal that decision.

Last week, Line 3 supporters rallied in front of the state Capitol in St. Paul, in front of a semi truck bearing a section of oil pipeline. Dan Olson of Duluth, representing the Laborers' International Union, implored Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan to allow the approval to stand.

"There’s no reason after all this time that I should be standing in front of a pipe on a truck. Let’s get this in the ground," Olson said.

That same night, opponents of the pipeline with the Sunrise Movement gathered in front of the governor's residence in St. Paul, banging pots and pans, drumming, and chanting “Walz wake up! Walz wake up!” urging him to do everything he could to stop the pipeline. 

The competing rallies underscore just how much of a lightning rod Line 3 has become over the past six years. It's a nearly $3 billion proposal from Enbridge Energy to replace an existing, aging oil pipeline that requires significant maintenance with a new line that could carry nearly twice as much oil along a different route across northern Minnesota.

On one side, business and labor groups argue the new line would be safer, would provide thousands of construction jobs and provide important property tax revenue to several counties.

On the other side, tribes and environmental groups say it threatens lakes and streams and tribal treaty lands, and would worsen climate change.

In the middle sits the Walz administration.

"What he said during the campaign was that he was going to rely on the science and the facts. Well, as you know there's science on both sides," said Cindy Rugeley, political scientist at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

And Rugeley said those two arguments are both being made within the Democratic Party.

"This is a lose-lose situation for him. I mean, he is going to aggravate either one faction of his party, one key constituency or another."

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which includes two commissioners the DFL governor appointed, has approved the pipeline.

But the state Department of Commerce, which acts as a public interest advocate in cases before the PUC, has argued that Line 3 isn't needed, and that Enbridge failed to prove that there's sufficient demand for the Canadian oil the pipeline would carry.

Under former Gov. Mark Dayton, the Commerce Department appealed the PUC's approval of Line 3.

Nancy Norr with the pro-Line 3 group Jobs for Minnesotans said the project has already gone through an unprecedented six-year review. And it's already been approved twice by state utility regulators.

"So at this point, we don't think the state of Minnesota should enter into any matter that would delay the process, cost taxpayers money, or essentially be redundant to the process that has already taken place once before," Norr said.

Supporters of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3.
Supporters of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota parked a truck near the State Capitol in St. Paul on Jan. 31, carrying pipeline segments signed by people who back the project. They contend that replacing the aging pipeline with new pipe will provide the safest way to carry Line 3's oil from Alberta to Enbridge's terminal in Superior, Wis.
Steve Karnowski | AP file

"The fact remains that the permit process has lasted over six years so far,” said Matt Gordon, a member of the White Earth Band who owns a construction company that contracts with Enbridge. “We passed every test by the state of Minnesota. It's been approved by the PUC twice already."

State utility regulators initially approved the Line 3 project in the summer of 2018. Then the Public Utilities Commission approved it again in February, after the project’s environmental review was revised following a state court ruling that had invalidated it.

The Walz administration has already decided once to allow the commerce department appeal started during the Dayton administration to continue. Now he must decide whether to file a new appeal.

Regardless of what the governor decides, other groups have already committed to appealing the decision, including environmental groups like Friends of the Headwaters, and tribes including the Red Lake Nation.

The band's attorney, Joe Plumer, said the state's participation is critical.

"Because it carries more weight for the Court of Appeals, who's going to be considering this appeal," Plumer said.

Andy Pearson, the Midwest tar sands coordinator for the group MN350, said the state commerce department has played a crucial expert role in the appeals of Line 3.

“So I would say that the state fails here if it leaves the work of fixing this issue to a bunch of community groups and Native nations. … There is a role for the state to be in here to defend the case it’s made here for the last three years,” Pearson said.

In the meantime, Enbridge still needs to secure additional permits before it can begin construction. A hearing on a key permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency begins next week. The MPCA must make its permit decision by Nov. 15.

Enbridge’s previous timeline was to begin construction this summer, said the company’s Line 3 project director Barry Simonson.

Now, barring any additional regulatory or legal setbacks, Simonson said Enbridge hopes to begin construction on Line 3 in late November or December.

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