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Fate of Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota goes to public hearings

The controversial upgrade project seeking regulatory approval faces stiff opposition from some quarters

Enbridge Spectra Merger 20160906

Regulators in Minnesota will rule on whether Enbridge's Line 3 upgrade can proceed as protesters prepare for a fight. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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Minnesota kicks off public hearings this week on whether regulators should allow Enbridge Energy to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

The replacement would have higher capacity than the existing pipeline and run along a new route in some areas — two characteristics that opponents say shows it's more like a new pipeline than a replacement.

Environmental and tribal groups say they expect hundreds of people to protest and march against the project before Thursday's hearing in St. Paul. They've been buoyed by a recent review from the state Commerce Department, which surprised opponents and Enbridge alike by concluding the project isn't needed and won't benefit Minnesota. But Enbridge says Line 3 is a critical piece of infrastructure for petroleum shippers and refineries in the region.

Oil pipelines have become an increasingly contentious national issue amid concerns about oilsands oil and climate change, the danger that spills pose to water supplies, and the rights of Native Americans who live along the routes. The fight over the Dakota Access pipeline drew thousands of protesters to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, stalling work on that project for months.

Here's a look at some of the issues with Line 3:

The pipeline

Calgary-based Enbridge wants to replace Line 3, which was built in the 1960s, because it now runs at just over half its original capacity of 760,000 barrels per day and the costs of maintaining it are growing. The pipeline runs from Hardisty, Alberta, clips a corner of North Dakota, and crosses Minnesota on its way to Enbridge's terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Construction has already begun in Canada and Wisconsin. Overall, it's about a $7.5 billion US project.

The replacement would follow much of Line 3's current corridor, although Enbridge wants to use a more southerly new route across much of northern Minnesota that would cross the Mississippi River headwaters and pristine lake country where Ojibwe bands harvest wild rice and hold treaty rights.

Enbridge's project manager for Line 3, Barry Simonson, said the new pipeline would use state-of-the-art technology and stronger steel to ensure safety, which he said is Enbridge's paramount concern.

The decision process

The hearings will be conducted in nine Minnesota cities this month and next, starting Tuesday in Thief River Falls. The state Public Utilities Commission will consider the testimony as it decides whether the replacement is needed and, if so, whether it should follow Enbridge's preferred route or an alternative path.

An administrative law judge will hold several additional days of more formal hearings in November, using a trial-like format in which the official parties to the case can cross-examine witnesses. Separate proceedings will consider whether the environmental review was adequate. The PUC isn't scheduled to make its final decision until April.

The PUC is independent but Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton appointed all five commissioners. Dayton has said he'll await the rebuttals of the Commerce Department's position that project proponents will file before announcing his own views.

The opponents

Environmental groups spearheaded by the Sierra Club are organizing a rally at the state Capitol on Thursday afternoon, featuring Native American jingle dress dancers, followed by a march to the hearing at a downtown St. Paul hotel.

The groups include Honor the Earth, led by indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke, who depicts Line 3 as the next Dakota Access fight. They also include Youth Climate Intervenors, a group of 13 Native Americans and other young people who won official standing to participate in the regulatory proceedings.

"This is Canadian oil passing through Minnesota's watershed and through our land, our treaty areas, our wild rice areas, the Mississippi headwaters," said Tara Houska, national campaigns director for Honor the Earth. "It's a massive pipeline and if it leaks we will bear the impact of it."

Honor the Earth and the Sierra Club are among several North American and European groups that sent a letter to 36 banks last week urging them to stop financing Enbridge.

The supporters

Simonson said Enbridge will use the public process to explain why replacing Line 3 is important to Minnesota and surrounding states, and how the new line will better protect the environment. The company hopes that will help overcome opposition, he said.

"I don't think anyone wants another Standing Rock to happen in Minnesota," he said.

Canadian oil shippers and Midwest refineries say they need the added capacity and improved reliability the replacement would provide. Business and labour groups want the construction jobs Line 3 would create.

Looking ahead

If Minnesota's PUC blocks the project, Enbridge could be expected to appeal. The company would still be able to use its upgraded pipeline sections in Canada and Wisconsin, although capacity would be constrained by the old Minnesota segment.

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