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Commission votes to move ahead with Minnesota pipeline environmental review

A tanker truck passes by an Enbridge storage tank July 7, 2014, near Berthold, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Minnesota officials rejected environmentalists' requests to delay study of a proposed northern Minnesota oil pipeline Friday, Oct. 28, but a lengthy environmental review must be completed before approval is given to build it.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MNPUC) voted 5-0 to deny motions by environmental groups. The environmental study will take months.

The Line 3 pipeline would replace a nearly 60-year-old one. The new one would run either in the same area of the existing pipeline or along other utility corridors.

"The decisiveness of the MNPUC in today's proceedings provides optimism that subsequent efforts will follow an orderly process," said John Swanson, Vice President U.S. Major Projects Execution for Enbridge. "While we are still concerned about project schedule, we will examine the commission's final order to determine the impact."

Pipeline supporters were happy, including members of the Laborers International Union of America.

"All we ask is full, fair and timely consideration for a needed, job-creating infrastructure project," the union's Kevin Pranis said. "We were concerned that we have already seen too many avoidable delays in the permitting process for pipeline projects in Minnesota."

The pipeline would connect to one in North Dakota and move Canadian oil through Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake, Clearwater, Hubbard, Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing, Aitkin and Carlton counties in northern Minnesota. Some oil in the 337-mile, 36-inch pipeline would be diverted south at Clearbrook while the rest would go east to Superior, Wis.

About 13 miles of the replacement pipeline would be in North Dakota and 14 miles in Wisconsin. It begins in Alberta.

The pipeline, estimated to cost more than $2.6 billion, would have a 760,000-barrel-per-day capacity. About 3,000 people would be needed to build it.

The old pipeline would be abandoned, but not removed from the ground, after the new one begins operating, an Enbridge official said.

The utility commission staff told commissioners that environmental groups' arguments that there was confusion between Line 3 and the proposed Sandpiper pipeline were not valid. The two projects were kept separate at public hearings about them, the staff said.

Enbridge had proposed building Sandpiper, in the same area that Line 3 is located, to deliver North Dakota crude oil to a Superior refinery. The company withdrew that plan on Sept. 1 after encountering strong opposition.

"Replacing Line 3 is the right thing to do in Minnesota", Enbridge said in a statement released following the Oct. 28 decision. "This important integrity and maintenance project will reduce future repair activities and disruptions to landowners and the environment, as well as restore the capacity of Line 3, which serves Minnesota's refineries."

Friends of the Headwaters was involved in the request to reopen the public comment process on the Line 3 Replacement project. Friends of the Headwaters (FOH) spokesperson Richard Smith said citizens should have the opportunity to consider the possibilities inherent in the contradictory claims regarding future utility for the old Line 3.

In their motion to the Public Utilities Commission, FOH asked the PUC to reopen a brief comment period so that the public would have the right to comment upon developments affecting the nature and scope of this project.

"Despite assurances by the PUC Commissioners at previous hearings about their intentions to restore public trust and involve citizens in this EIS process, Friday's decision by the PUC Commissioners has denied the public's right of that involvement," Smith said in a statement. "We are disappointed the state has chosen this decision. Minnesota's pristine and valuable freshwater resources are at risk."

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