Minnesota releases review on disputed Enbridge oil pipeline

Minnesota regulators on Thursday released the final environmental review of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3 oil pipeline, which carries Canadian tar sands crude across northern Minnesota to Wisconsin.

The state Commerce Department has updated and expanded the massive document since it released the draft for public comment in May. Changes include additional discussion of the socioeconomic impact of the project, the potential impact on tribal resources and the potential impact of oil spills, as well as the inclusion of public comments, the department said. In the process, the main document grew to just over 2,000 pages, plus around 12,000 pages of appendices.

The review will inform the state Public Utilities Commission as it decides whether the project is needed and what route it should take. The commission is scheduled to decide by Dec. 11 whether the final review meets the legal requirements, and to decide on April 30 whether to give its ultimate approval to the pipeline and its route. Administrative law judges will hold hearings and take more public testimony along the way.

Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge proposed the $7.5 billion project because the old pipeline is now restricted to 390,000 barrels per day and its maintenance needs are growing. The replacement would restore the original capacity of 760,000 barrels per day. The company says Line 3 is a vital link in its network, and the replacement would help it continue to meet the demand for Canadian oil from refineries in Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Tribal and environmental groups are fighting the project. Like the draft, the final review says any of the routes "would have a disproportionate and adverse effect on tribal resources and tribal members."

Enbridge built Line 3 in the 1960s to carry Canadian crude from Hardisty, Alberta, to its terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. The route clips a corner of North Dakota before it crosses into Minnesota. The company wants the replacement to follow the existing path as far as its terminal in Clearbook, Minnesota, then take a more southerly new route to Superior.

Enbridge's preferred route has drawn opposition because it would cut through the Mississippi River headwaters region and the pristine lake country of northern Minnesota, where Ojibwe bands harvest wild rice and hold treaty rights. However, it would avoid two reservations crossed by the existing Line 3 — Leech Lake and Fond du Lac — where approval by the tribal governments would be unlikely. The review also studied four alternative routes without recommending one over the other, as well as continued use of the existing pipeline, which Enbridge wants to shut down permanently but leave in place.

The Commerce Department held public meetings at 22 sites this summer to take comments on the draft. Those meetings drew Native American activists and environmentalists who say the pipeline poses unacceptable risks of oil spills in sensitive areas and would contribute to climate change by fostering more production of Canadian tar sands crude, which takes more energy to produce than conventional crude.

Those meetings also attracted labor and business groups that say the project will bring more than 1,500 construction and related jobs to the state and provide ongoing tax benefits to local governments along the route.

Native American groups including Honor the Earth, which is led by Winona LaDuke, have threatened mass protests that would echo the fight over the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas, which stalled work for months. Enbridge owns a minority stake in that pipeline, which began carrying oil from North Dakota to Illinois in June. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the National Congress of American Indians are among the native groups that have passed formal resolutions against the project.

A Commerce Department tribal liaison, Danielle Oxendine Molliver, resigned last month. She said she didn't think the state was dealing with the tribes in good faith and that she was pushed to the side during the public comment meetings because Enbridge considered her biased.

Despite the document's enormous size, the Sierra Club said it's still "half-baked" and incomplete. The environmental organization's state director, Margaret Levin, said in a statement that it's clear the department didn't have time to review all the public and technical comments that were submitted. She added that the review still doesn't properly address concerns about the risks of the project or adequately assess alternatives.