By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
After months of delays, Minnesota got a go-ahead from an administrative law judge to go with the flow of Bakken oil from North Dakota.
The proposed 610-mile Sandpiper pipeline would connect the Bakken oil shale fields in western North Dakota to refineries in Clearbrook, Minn., and Superior, Wis. Environmental opponents have vowed to fight the project down to the wire.
The fate of the $2.6 billion Enbridge pipeline—Minnesota’s Keystone XL—still hinges on a decisive June 3 hearing before the state Public Utilities Commission. Calgary-based Enbridge already supplies about 80 percent of the oil refined in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Chicago.
“We can’t speculate on how the Public Utilities Commission hearing will go, nor what the outcome will be,” Lorraine Little, senior manager of public affairs with Enbridge Energy, said in an emailed statement. “We only know that the judge provided a strong recommendation to grant the Sandpiper certificate of need. This recommendation is significant and will enable the Minnesota regulatory process to move forward in a timely manner.”
The proposed pipeline would pump another $25 million in property taxes and 1,500 or more jobs for pipefitters, engineers, laborers and truckers into a northern Minnesota economy in need of a boost. A coalition of unions supports the project in an unusual alliance with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, along with widespread support from local legislators and county commissioners.
“These are high salary union jobs with access to pensions to health care all of that. This means a tremendous amount to our members,” Julia Donnelly, political director at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, said. “The pains of the recession are still really fresh to a lot of folks in the construction industry,” said
The company’s proposed route crosses a sparsely populated area with woods, wetlands and lakes. Opponents question Enbridge’s environmental record, urging the PUC to reconsider requests for further study of the potential impact of an oil spill. They also moved to expand the permitting process to include another pipeline Enbridge wants to install alongside Sandpiper in place of an older line.
“We’ve just suggested that there should be a safer place to put it across the state, environmentally,” said Richard Smith, president of Friends of the Headwaters. “The state would still retain whatever property tax dollars come from the company from the pipeline itself, plus there’d still be construction jobs.”
Proponents say moving crude oil through pipelines is safer than by trains pouring out of North Dakota.
“A lot of our members not only work construction but they also live near rail lines where we have a significant volume of oil moving that is less safe and sound than it could be in a pipeline,” said Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota.
Leading up to the June hearing before PUC regulators in St. Paul, Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman criticized the regulatory procedure for being “a lot harder than it ought to be.”
Lipman’s 106 page ruling advised the PUC to exclude “rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels…global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict” from consideration in future proceedings.
“The addition of those larger items to the hearing agenda has a significant impact. It adds genuine complexity and expense to a contested case—and the burdens of coping with that complexity and expense falls upon energy companies, government agencies and ordinary citizens alike.”
If state regulators approve a certificate of need for Sandpiper, the proposed pipeline faces yet another round of public meetings to determine the best route.
Environmental groups will hold a Twin Cities rally on June 6 to protest Sandpiper and the other Enbridge pipeline, which would transport crude from the Canadian oil sands.
“Everybody wants to come up here and have a pristine vacation place to come to. They want to keep everything mowed and trash picked up,” said Frank Bibeau, attorney for environmental group Honor the Earth. “But they want that backyard to be ignored when they have other interests, is how we see it.”