Minnesota agency approves oil pipeline route — could cross St. Croix River tributary

State commissioners’ controversial decision this week to allow the new route for Line 3 puts Kettle River in the crosshairs.




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The Upper Kettle River. (Photo by Nicole Butler, St. Croix River Association)

A decision yesterday by regulators in Minnesota could cause a lot more oil to cross the the state, and the upper reaches of the St. Croix River watershed.

After two weeks of contentious hearings, and five years of public debate, the Public Utilities Commission approved a proposed route by Enbridge for its new Line 3 pipeline that may go under the headwaters of the Kettle River.

The Kettle is not just a major tributary of the St. Croix, entering it about 80 miles below the possible pipeline crossing, but also a state-designated Wild River, popular for paddling, fishing, and two state parks along its reaches.

The only remaining question about the route is whether it will follow Route Segment Alternative-21, which would cross the Kettle River watershed, or RSA-22, which would following an existing pipeline corridor across the Fond du Lac reservation. (Note: Thank you to Elizabeth Dunbar of MPR News for pointing me in the right direction and all the great reporting on this story.)

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The regulators instructed Enbridge and the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe to decide between the two options in the next 60 days.

Victory for Enbridge

Canadian pipeline conglomerate Enbridge has struggled to find a way to get more oil across Minnesota. It previously dropped plans for its Sandpiper pipeline, and was forced to go through the Environmental Impact Statement process for Line 3.

Thursday’s vote was a victory. The company’s stock price started to climb at noon, after commissioners indicated they would approve the Certificate of Need. It is now up about four dollars.

Enbridge’s stock price since yesterday at noon has gone up about 12 percent. (Graphic courtesy Yahoo! Finance)
Al Monaco, president and CEO of Enbridge

“The PUC’s decision to approve our preferred route with modifications is a good outcome for Minnesota and the result of listening carefully to stakeholders and an effective consultation process,” said Al Monaco, CEO of Enbridge. “We believe our route best protects the environment and has overwhelming support of communities.”

The existing Line 3 crosses Minnesota farther to the north, cutting through two Ojibwe reservations and many wild rice lakes. It is more than 50 years old and operating at half its original capacity, requiring costly maintenance.

By approving the new route, the commission not only directed the pipeline to cross the St. Croix watershed for the first time, but also to bring enough additional oil to Wisconsin that another possible new pipeline across the St. Croix headwaters there may be needed soon.

‘Home team’ advantage

Native American activists strongly oppose the replacement project, saying it imperils tribal rights, clean water, wild rice and other cultural resources, and will make it more affordable to extract and transport tar sands oil from Canada, which is seen as a contributor to climate change.

After yesterday’s PUC decision, tribal leaders were defiant.

Activist Winona LaDuke, a member of the Leech Land Band of Ojibwe, said she was inviting water protectors to come to Minnesota and start learning about its people and water in anticipation of a fight to stop construction.

“What I will tell you is we are not backing down,” LaDuke said. “We are here, we will stand here, because we have been here for 10,000 years. We’re the home team, and we’re not going anywhere.”

She compared the invitation to water protectors to the popular signs around northern Minnesota welcoming hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and other groups.

Courtesy Honor the Earth.

LaDuke all but promised a similar resistance movement to the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota in 2016. Public pressure and civil disobedience eventually convinced the federal government to halt the project while undertaking a new environmental review. The decision was overturned by President Trump, and the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline is now in operation.

A few weeks ago on the Namekagon River, near Hayward, Red Cliff Band Ojibwe elder Frank ‘Anakwad’ Montano told an audience about the Ojibwe’s Seven Fire Prophesies. It told the people to go west across the Great Lakes from their ancestral homes, to the place where food grows on the water.

It also predicted the Earth would one day be covered in snakes — and Frank said the oil pipelines were those snakes.

Conflicted commissioners

Ultimately, the Public Utilities Commission voted 3-2 to approve the Certificate of Need, the most stringent requirement for the project.

During deliberations, several spoke about feeling like their hands were tied by the law, and faced an impossible decision in either allowing the old, unsafe pipeline to continue operating, or letting Enbridge built a new pipeline along a new route.

“It feels like it’s a gun to our head,” commissioner Dan Lipschultz said.

In the last several months, a state judge and the Department of Commerce both said the replacement project was unnecessary and risky. The PUC rejected those analyses in making the decision.

While the Certificate of Need is seen as the highest hurdle for Enbridge to get over, the pipeline is not yet approved. The company will now need to apply for a variety of permits, with their own reviews and opportunities for public comment.

“The PUC’s decision is not the final approval of this pipeline,” Governor Mark Dayton said. “Rather, it only allows Enbridge to begin to apply for at least 29 required federal, state, and local permits. Those regulatory reviews, which address numerous issues not considered by the PUC, will take several months. Approvals are by no means assured, and they would require any such project to meet Minnesota’s highest standards, protecting all our state’s earth, air, water, natural resources, and cultural heritage.”

Enbridge says it anticipates the new pipeline being ready to transport 32 million gallons of oil per day about a year from now, in the second half of 2019.

Watch Winona LaDuke’s speech after the decision:


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Minnesota agency approves oil pipeline route — could cross St. Croix River tributary