On Thursday, The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the environmental review for the proposed Enbridge Energy Line 3 replacement oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
The PUC, after delaying the decision in December and saying the Minnesota Department of Commerce needed to answer more questions, this time signed off on the environmental impact statement as adequate.
The decision was expected because the commission asked for relatively minor changes at its December meeting.
"This has been the most extensive EIS related to a pipeline project in the history of Minnesota. State agency staff spent 16 months drafting the 2,000 pages of analysis that was developed in accordance with the law. It addresses the potentially significant issues and alternatives raised in scoping and incorporates input gathered in 49 public meetings and multiple comment periods," Enbridge said in a statement released after the unanimous PUC voice vote. "The EIS confirms that the replacement of Line 3 as proposed by Enbridge is a superior outcome to the continued operation of the existing Line 3 and to any alternative means of transporting crude oil by truck or rail."
But the vote is far from the end of the regulatory process for the pipeline.
A state administrative law judge is expected to make a decision in April on both the social "need" for the pipeline and the best of several possible routes. The PUC, taking the judge's decision as advisory, is slated to take its final vote in June on the need and route, in what could be the final go-ahead for the controversial pipeline pending any court action.
Enbridge is seeking the state's permission to replace its 50-year-old Line 3 with a new line that would carry 760,000 barrels, nearly 32 million gallons, of oil per day from Hardisty, Alberta, to the company's terminal in Superior. The 1,033-mile pipeline will cost nearly $3 billion. Much of the Wisconsin and Canadian portions already are underway or completed.
Supporters say the project's Minnesota portion will create hundreds of construction jobs and bolster the supply of North American oil that feeds demand across the Midwest. They also note that pipelines are the safest alternative for moving large amounts of crude oil to market.
But opponents, including Native American activist groups, say the pipeline is still subject to spills, noting it will will cross many sensitive areas of northern Minnesota, including near rivers, wetlands and lakes. And they say the Midwest doesn't need any more oil, especially the Canadian tar sands oil that spurs even more of the greenhouse gases that scientists say are causing global climate change.
Several opponents asked the commission to hold off on approving the review until after a study was completed on the pipeline's impact on tribal cultural resources.
"We're disappointed that the commissioners decided to leave out a lot of valuable information that could have led to a different outcome," said Paul Blackburn, attorney for the group Honor the Earth.
Blackburn said he's still hopeful the PUC will decide in June that the pipeline and its added oil capacity isn't needed for Minnesota's cleaner energy future.
"The future that Enbridge is counting on, with rising demand and prices for oil, is one that could only be foreseen by climate change deniers," he said. "The demand for oil is going the way of coal. The future is in electric cars and renewable energy, not more oil."
Others agreed the PUC made the wrong decision.
"Despite the PUC's ruling today, the fact remains that this review fails to address serious concerns raised by tribes and landowners about Line 3," said Margaret Levin, state director for the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.
But Jobs for Minnesotans, a labor and business group, praised the decision as good for Minnesota's economy. The approval "is a tremendous achievement for this crucial infrastructure project. The review and analysis were accomplished in a thoughtful and deliberate process involving a wide range of stakeholders," the group said in a statement.