Updated: 7:40 p.m.
Gov. Tim Walz’s administration is wading deeper into the contentious, long-simmering debate over the proposed Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce announced plans Tuesday to appeal state utility regulators’ decision earlier this year to approve Enbridge Energy’s proposal to replace a deteriorating pipeline that crosses northern Minnesota with a new, larger pipe along a different route.
In a statement released late Tuesday, the Commerce Department said its decision was consistent with previous agency actions. The department has filed similar appeals earlier in the Line 3 regulatory process, under the administrations of Walz and his predecessor, former Gov. Mark Dayton.
The department is arguing the state Public Utilities Commission erred in granting Enbridge Energy a certificate of need — which establishes that a project is in the state’s best interest — to build the Line 3 project, “because Enbridge didn’t introduce, and so the commission could not evaluate the accuracy of, a long-term demand forecast.”
The Commerce Department also said the utility regulator unlawfully shifted the burden of proof “to show that demand for product transmitted by Line 3 would decrease during the forecast period” from Enbridge to the department and others.
In an announcement Tuesday, the Commerce Department said it plans to formally file its challenge with the Minnesota Court of Appeals Wednesday.
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Long saga continues
Enbridge has proposed replacing its existing Line 3 pipeline, which was built in the 1960s and requires substantial maintenance, with a new line that would allow the company to transport nearly twice as much oil, along a new corridor across northern Minnesota.
In a statement after the Commerce Department’s announcement, Walz said, “When it comes to any project that impacts our environment and our economy, we must follow the process, the law, and the science.”
He said the appeal is a part of that process, and is “important to ensure clarity in the steps that Minnesota takes to evaluate and approve projects like this one.”
Walz has been under increasing pressure from both pipeline opponents and supporters as the decision loomed.
On Tuesday morning, pipeline opponents rallied on the steps of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and outside the governor’s residence in St. Paul, urging Walz to continue legal appeals of Line 3. Pipeline supporters rallied outside the State Capitol last week in front of a replica section of pipeline, pleading with Walz to allow the project to move forward.
Tuesday’s announcement was immediately blasted by supporters of the nearly $3 billion project, which has wound its way through the regulation and appeals processes since 2014.
“This is the most scrutinized project in Minnesota history,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “It’s been approved by his own appointees on the Public Utilities Commission but the governor will once again be wasting taxpayer resources in an attempt to stop this project.”
From the start, the project has been supported by several industry and regional groups, who tout its promise of construction jobs for northern Minnesota
“Instead of making the right and data-informed decision to accept six years of review to move Line 3 forward, he decided to disrespect the hard work done by regulators he has appointed,” Aitkin, Minn., Mayor Gary Tibbits said on behalf of the pro-pipeline group Minnesotans for Line 3.
A winding process of regulation and appeals
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission first approved a certificate of need and route permit for Line 3 in June 2018.
Several environmental groups and northern Minnesota Ojibwe tribes, as well as the Minnesota Department of Commerce, challenged that decision in court.
But those challenges were tossed after a court ordered a revision to the project’s environmental review.
The PUC reaffirmed its support for Line 3 earlier this year, and the Department of Commerce faced a Wednesday deadline to decide whether to refile its appeal.
The Red Lake Nation and White Earth Band of Ojibwe, the Sierra Club and Honor the Earth also announced Tuesday that they are filing a joint lawsuit challenging the project.
“Yet again, the PUC has refused to acknowledge the reality that Line 3 would pose untenable costs to Minnesota, all to deliver tar sands oil we don’t need," said Sierra Club North Star Chapter Director Margaret Levin.
The groups oppose the Line 3 replacement on several fronts, arguing that the state of Minnesota doesn’t need the oil the pipeline would carry, that the project would exacerbate climate change, and would threaten lands and waters where Native American tribal members have treaty rights to hunt, fish and harvest wild rice.
Two additional groups, the Youth Climate Intervenors and Friends of the Headwaters, have announced that they also plan to file separate appeals.
Enbridge officials said they were disappointed in Walz’s decision to continue the appeal.
In a statement Tuesday, the company quoted PUC Commissioner Valerie Means, one of Walz’s recent appointees to the five-member commission, who, in voting in favor of Line 3 in February, said the PUC relies on long-range forecasts “because evidence of short-term fluctuations in oil markets are not particularly useful in determining the need for a petroleum pipeline.”
Enbridge still needs additional permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it can begin building the pipeline.
A state administrative law judge is scheduled to begin a week-long contested case hearing Monday on the MPCA permit. The agency faces a Nov. 15 deadline to decide whether to reissue the permit.
Enbridge hopes to begin construction before the end of the year. It has said it would take six to nine months to build the new pipeline.