State utility regulators dismiss calls for Line 3 investigation

Enbridge's Superior Terminal receives the majority of its oil from Canada.
Enbridge's Superior Terminal as seen from the air in February 2018. The terminal receives the vast majority of its oil from Canada and a lesser amount from North Dakota.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | File 2018

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has unanimously rejected a complaint and request for an investigation from an environmental group that argued Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project is no longer needed because of recent capacity increases the company has made to its pipeline system. 

Honor the Earth wrote in a filing last October that Enbridge had increased the capacity of several pipelines that transport Canadian oil through northern Minnesota by several hundred thousand barrels, but failed to disclose that information to the PUC, as it was deciding whether to approve Enbridge’s plan to replace its Line 3 with a larger pipeline.

The group claims that, had Enbridge disclosed the increased capacity during the regulatory process, the company would not have been able to meet the requirement that it demonstrate a need in Minnesota for the expanded capacity a new Line 3 would bring. 

In making its decision Thursday, the five-member Public Utilities Commission asserted that they have jurisdiction to investigate the type of issues Honor the Earth raised, but did not rule on the merits of the organization’s claim.

Instead, commissioners said they didn’t have the jurisdiction to do so at this time because a legal challenge to their approval of Line 3 — filed by Honor the Earth, along with several other environmental groups and tribes — is currently before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. 

“Everything that the appellate court can know about the case must come from the record on appeal. And an investigation undoubtedly seeking to further develop and supplement the Line 3 record would likely affect the appeal, and that would constitute an interference with the appellate process,” said Commissioner Valerie Means. 

Enbridge began construction on Line 3 in December 2020. It’s a roughly $3 billion project to replace an existing pipeline with a larger pipe that will be able to carry about 370,000 additional barrels of oil annually, along a new route that cuts across northern Minnesota. 

Construction is about half complete. The company is currently working on eight pumping stations along the route, but has paused construction on the pipeline itself until June, during the springtime thaw. 

Construction crews work on the Line 3 project.
Construction crews work on the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project on the Fond du Lac Reservation next to Camp Migizi, a home base for protesters fighting the project, on Feb. 26.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

The project, from the start, has been controversial. Enbridge argues it’s safer to replace the aging, corroding pipe — built in the 1960s — with a new line, constructed with modern engineering methods, that it says will make it less susceptible to leaks. 

But environmental groups and several Ojibwe tribes in northern Minnesota who are fighting the project argue it opens up a new stretch of northern Minnesota to potential spills, threatens tribal treaty rights, and would greatly increase the state’s contribution to climate change. 

Line 3 is one of six pipelines that carry more than 2.5 million barrels of crude every day from the Alberta oil sands region of Canada and across northern Minnesota to Enbridge’s pipeline hub in Superior, Wis. From there, the oil is routed to refineries around the Midwest, eastern Canada and the Gulf Coast. 

A second look at two other pipelines

In a related complaint filed with the PUC, Honor the Earth alleged that Enbridge has increased the capacity of two of those other pipelines — Line 4 and Line 67 — by 10 percent or more, and asked the regulators to investigate whether those increases mean those pipelines must be recertified by the commission. 

Enbridge argued the commission lacks jurisdiction to consider that complaint, saying that the PUC doesn’t have an ongoing supervisory role of pipelines after they’re approved and constructed. 

Commissioners bristled at that suggestion, asserting that the commission does maintain jurisdiction to require that the company apply for recertification of a pipeline if it increases capacity by more than 10 percent. 

But in this instance, the commissioners ruled unanimously that the evidence failed to show that Enbridge had increased capacity in the two pipelines by that amount, and dismissed the complaint. 

Thursday’s rulings don’t mean challenges to Line 3 are over. The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments last month in the case challenging the Public Utilities Commission’s approval of Line 3 and questioning whether Enbridge proved there’s demand for the oil that the pipeline would carry. 

If plaintiffs in that case — including the Minnesota Department of Commerce — prevail, it could potentially block construction of the line, or stop the flow of oil through the pipeline after it’s finished.

Enbridge has said it expects to complete construction by the end of the year. Meanwhile, on the federal level, Line 3 opponents are increasing pressure on the Biden administration to step in and block the project.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.