By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
It has all the hallmarks of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy, except it’s in Minnesota and the national media doesn’t seem to care.
The proposed Sandpiper pipeline for newly found shale oil flows with promises of thousands of construction jobs and millions in tax revenue. But Sandpiper is up against vocal environmental opposition and regulators slow-walking the approval process.
“For us, on the White Earth reservation in northwestern Minnesota, it is the Sandpiper which threatens our community, and our way of life,” states the website of Honor the Earth, a key group opposing the project.
The White Earth Indian Reservation is a Native American reservation that include all of Mahnomen County and parts of Becker and Clearwater counties.
“The Sandpiper line of fracked oil will cross pristine ecosystems, and facilitate the creation of a national sacrifice area in western North Dakota,” Honor the Earth said.
Like Keystone XL, the $2.5-billion construction project has welded together support from unlikely allies — numerous labor unions and state chambers of commerce.
“Historically, we haven’t been on the same side of things, and I think that’s what really makes the Sandpiper project unique,” said Julia Donnelly, political director at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49.
“We’ve really leveraged our relationship with the unions, and they’ve leveraged their relationship with us, to really kind of push this forward,” said Ben Gerber, energy, labor and management policy manager for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “… I think we’ve worked closer with them this time around than in previous projects, just because I think we both understand what’s at stake.”
The proposed 610-mile Enbridge pipeline crosses state, rather than international boundaries, connecting the Bakken oil shale fields in western North Dakota to refineries in Clearbrook, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.
“Construction of Sandpiper will provide approximately 1,500 local job opportunities during construction, with the expectation that many of the construction jobs will be filled by Minnesotans. Once Sandpiper is in service, Enbridge’s contributions to Minnesota property taxes will increase by as much as $25 million annually,” said Lorraine Little, Enbridge senior manager for U.S. public affairs, liquids operations and projects.
The energy provider already pays $34 million annually in Minnesota property taxes.
When the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission proposed splitting the permitting process into two phases, unions and business came together in an unsuccessful effort to challenge what could be a yearlong delay.
““We believe that failure to approve the Sandpiper application in a timely manner could have negative consequences for our members and for all Minnesotans. We do not believe that the current heavy reliance on rail to transport Bakken crude is as safe or as sustainable as a pipeline,” Dan Olson, a Laborers International Union of North America representative and Superior, Wisconsin, city council member, said in remarks submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. (Docket 13-473)
“Delaying the Sandpiper project for a year or more — as the Commission’s Order threatens to do — may be the difference between a worker being able to provide for his or her family and falling on hard times. With the economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, these construction jobs are of paramount importance to workers,” the United Association of Journey and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry said in an entry to the MPUC.
Union workers also packed statewide public hearings that just wrapped up on the certificate-of-need permit that state regulators are expected to be ruled by early summer. Labor representatives say pipeline supporters outnumbered opponents by more than 3-1 at several sessions, based on sign-up sheet registrations.
“We’ve actually been working together really well with the chamber and other coalition groups. We’re not coordinating strategy or anything like that, but when it comes to the hearings, all of our members are up there testifying in support of this project. That’s been interesting and I think it’s been successful so far,” Donnelly said.
For its part, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says the project would bring an economic boost to working families in some of the state’s poorest areas.
“The counties along Enbridge’s preferred route are economically challenged when compared to the rest of Minnesota,” William Blazar, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce interim president, said in a 200-page filing with the state. “… The increased business activity due to pipeline construction will bring much-needed economic stimulus to Minnesota communities struggling with high unemployment.”
One worker’s statement in support of the pipeline captured the passionate personal impact on some northwestern Minnesota families.
“Since my wife and I were married in 2009, I’ve only had one month when I was working close enough to come home at night. I know a lot of pipeline laborers like me who live in Northern Minnesota and would love the chance to work close to home for once,” said Matt Duncombe, an East Grand Forks pipeline worker and union steward with Laborer’s Local 563.
Pipeline work, he said ” … gave me purpose, it taught me discipline, it introduced me to brotherhood, and it has allowed me to provide for my family. I want to see other people get that same opportunity.”