DULUTH - An administrative law judge on Monday recommended the contentious Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline should move forward, but not along the route the company prefers.
Instead, Administrative Law Judge Ann O'Reilly said a new Line 3 should be approved only if it replaces the current 50-year-old pipeline right in its existing trench.
That route crosses two reservations - Leech Lake and Fond du Lac - giving those bands the ability to stop the project if approved as recommended.
"The (Public Utilities Commission) does not have the authority to require the Indian Tribes to permit the replacement of Line 3 within the reservations," O'Reilly wrote.
Now it's up to the PUC to decide whether to accept the non-binding recommendation. The five-person commission is scheduled to vote in June.
Enbridge wants to replace its aging Line 3 with a new oil pipeline between Alberta and the company's terminal in Superior, Wis. Minnesota regulators have been reviewing the proposal and taking public comment since 2015.
The Line 3 replacement would cross 337 miles of northern Minnesota carrying 760,000 barrels of oil per day, and the prefered route differs from the original line for much of that journey. Enbridge planned to leave the old pipeline in the ground after cleaning it and sealing it in parts.
According to O'Reilly's report, Line 3 is an important part of the entire Enbridge Mainline System and it "is old, needs significant repair and poses significant integrity concerns for the state. Accordingly, the judge finds that replacement of the line is a reasonable and prudent action."
That's only if the existing Line 3 is removed and replaced along its current route, the judge made clear.
"In such a circumstance, the benefits to Minnesota refiners, refiners in the region and the people of Minnesota slightly outweigh the risks and impacts of a new crude oil pipeline," O'Reilly wrote.
The pipeline has prompted increasing protests from indigenous and environmental groups who argue the risk of oil spills and the contributions to climate change are too great to let the project go forward.
"Tribal nations have been crystal clear that a new line is not acceptable; there is no economic need for Line 3 and the risk it poses to Minnesota," said Tara Houska, national campaigns director for Honor the Earth. "Let's move to a green economy and away from a Canadian corporation sending dirty tar sands through our waters and treaty territories - deny Line 3."
If the PUC follows the judge's recommendation, pipeline opponent group Youth Climate Intervenors say O'Reilly "has handed the authority to deny Line 3 to the Leech Lake band."
The state's Department of Commerce last year found the replacement pipeline is unnecessary and wrote that "Minnesota would be better off if Enbridge proposed to cease operations of the existing Line 3, without any new pipeline being built."
But supporters say the $6.5 billion pipeline will improve the safety of oil transportation across Minnesota and provide well-paying jobs for the region.
"Judge O'Reilly's report makes clear that the Line 3 replacement is needed," Kevin Pranis, Laborers International Union of North America marketing manager, said in a statement. "The main area where we disagree is over the feasibility of replacing the pipeline along the current route. We don't think that's feasible, and we think it puts a disproportionate burden on Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which has made clear that they are not willing to host the Line 3 replacement."
Margaret Levin, state director for the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, said in statement that Minnesota's dependence on oil is falling and a new pipeline is not necessary.
"There's simply no good reason to allow Enbridge to build a dangerous new tar sands pipeline through our state, regardless of what route it takes," Levin said. "We urge the PUC to listen to the voices of thousands of Minnesotans who have marched, submitted public comment, and testified against Line 3 and reject this dangerous pipeline once and for all."
Enbridge says the existing Line 3, which today operates at half its original capacity, needs an increasing amount of maintenance to operate safely. The company commended the "important step in the regulatory process" on Monday, though the news was mixed for the project.
"Enbridge is pleased that the administrative law judge has listened to the extensive evidence that there's need for this safety-driven maintenance project," spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in a statement. "We will be taking time to review in more detail the recommendation that we use the existing right-of-way. ... We thank our thousands of supporters who came out to demonstrate that replacing Line 3 is good for Minnesota."
Construction for the entire 1,031-mile replacement is already underway in Canada and Wisconsin, but it still needs to pass the review process in Minnesota.
The Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote June 21 whether to approve the pipeline.