DULUTH-By the end of the month, the fate of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline should finally be known.
After years of technical research and public hearings, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to vote June 27 to approve, deny or put conditions on the contentious oil pipeline that would cross 337 miles of northern Minnesota. Though there is still a chance the decision gets pushed back, those for and against the project are preparing protests, celebrations and lawsuits.
Here is a rundown of the crucial decision resting on the shoulders of the five Minnesotans who comprise the PUC.
The PUC will decide whether to grant a certificate of need and a route permit for the $6.5 billion Line 3 replacement pipeline, Enbridge Energy's largest project to date.
The certificate of need is the legal golden ticket Enbridge needs to build Line 3. The law says the PUC must grant this approval if:
• Denial would hurt the "adequacy, reliability or efficiency" of energy supplies for the region.
• There is no better alternative.
• The benefits outweigh the risks.
• The project meets all laws and regulations.
The route permit tells Enbridge where it can build the pipeline. Much of the route the company is eyeing would differ from the original Line 3, avoiding two Minnesota Chippewa reservations though still crossing sensitive areas. However, an administrative law judge said the pipeline should follow the original route, and Enbridge should take out the old pipeline in the process - something the company did not intend to do. The PUC has a 10-item checklist to consider when granting a route permit, which under state law includes:
"A. human settlement, existence and density of populated areas, existing and planned future land use, and management plans;
B. the natural environment, public and designated lands, including but not limited to natural areas, wildlife habitat, water, and recreational lands;
C. lands of historical, archaeological, and cultural significance;
D. economies within the route, including agricultural, commercial or industrial, forestry, recreational, and mining operations;
E. pipeline cost and accessibility;
F. use of existing rights-of-way and right-of-way sharing or paralleling;
G. natural resources and features;
H. the extent to which human or environmental effects are subject to mitigation;
I. cumulative potential effects of related or anticipated future pipeline construction; and
J. the relevant applicable policies, rules, and regulations of other state and federal agencies, and local government land use laws."
The PUC's decision is based on the complete record of official proceedings from the past few years. That includes the final environmental impact statement, public comments, stakeholder motions and other information that has piled up since 2015. Administrative Law Judge Ann O'Reilly has summarized all of this in her findings of fact, conclusions of law and recommendation. The recommendation - to approve the replacement pipeline along the original route while removing the old Line 3 - is not binding, but is expected to carry some weight.
Since 2005, the commission has routinely issued certificates of need and/or route permits, "often with modifications from the route as proposed," PUC Executive Secretary Dan Wolf told Forum News Service last year.
On Monday and Tuesday, oral arguments begin. These are the closing arguments in the long legal process that began in 2015. Officially recognized opponents and supporters of the project will be allowed a set amount of time to make their cases, but there will be no public comment period. Oral arguments continue June 26 and 27, with the PUC set to deliberate those days as well. A vote is anticipated by the end of the June 27 meeting.
Gov. Mark Dayton appointed all five members of the Public Utilities Commission, who serve six-year terms and work full time regulating energy facilities and providers. By law, only three commissioners can be of the same party as the governor and one must live outside the Twin Cities metro area.
The governor has said he will not weigh in on the pipeline until the PUC process has fully played out. However, PUC staff recommended the commissioners approve Line 3 in a briefing filed on June 8.
"With respect to effects of the project on the natural environment, the consequences of granting a certificate of need for the project are more beneficial than denying it because of the risk of catastrophic failure of the existing line, despite it being operated at reduced pressure and shipping only light crude," PUC staff wrote.
In making their decisions, state law says "commissioners shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism."
Chairwoman Nancy Lange
Political party: Democrat
Background: Manager of policy and engagement at the Center for Energy and Environment, a nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency and low-carbon energy solutions.
Term expires: 2019
Vice-Chairman Dan Lipschultz
Political party: Democrat
Background: Attorney with experience in private practice, as assistant general counsel for a telecommunications firm, as assistant attorney general representing residential and small business ratepayers and as attorney for PUC.
Term expires: 2020
Political party: None
Background: Professional engineer and president of engineering and management consulting firm; previously executive vice president of District Energy St. Paul Inc.
Term expires: 2022
Political party: Republican
Background: Lawyer, lobbyist with Conservation Minnesota and state representative.
Term expires: 2021
Political party: Democrat
Background: State senator and assistant majority leader, state representative and community faculty member and adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University.
Term expires: 2023
The Public Utilities Commission will hear oral arguments on Line 3 beginning at 9:30 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday, June 18 and 19. On June 26 and 27, the PUC is expected to begin deliberations that could ultimately lead to a vote on the project. Follow Forum News Service as we report live from St. Paul during each of the meetings and the events that will surround them.
Find reporters Jimmy Lovrien on Twitter @JimmyLovrien and Brooks Johnson @readbrooks.