The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on accepted the revised environmental review, reapproved the certificate of need and set the route for Enbridge's proposed Line 3 oil pipeline in an often tense hearing Monday.
In three separate 3-1 votes in St. Paul, the PUC voted the environmental review was "adequate,” granted the project its certificate of need and approved the pipeline’s route permit through northern Minnesota.
In all three votes, Commissioner Matthew Schuerger was the only PUC member to dissent. He cited concerns for the environment and the pipeline’s contributions to climate change. His comments and votes were welcomed with cheers from pipeline opponents in the audience.
The PUC’s decision came as disappointment to opponents of the project. Some in the crowd called out “aye” along with Schuerger when he voted against the measures, with two individuals unfurling a banner that read “PUC climate deniers” after the certificate of need was approved.
At one point, several members in the crowd clashed with Commissioner John Tuma when he said the PUC did not intend to pit Minnesota against itself with its decision. They shouted that he and the other commissioners sowed division with their votes.
“I reject that,” he said.
Standing in the Minnesota Senate Building following the meeting’s adjournment, Line 3 project director Barry Simonson said Enbridge was pleased with the outcome.
“We’re extremely happy with the process and look forward to continuing the process going forward,” Simonson said.
Although the PUC’s approval of the measures once again moves the project forward and off the PUC’s plate, groups opposed to the project promised to fight the PUC’s decision.
In a statement, the Sierra Club said it would continue to oppose the project and that it planned “to pursue all legal avenues to challenge the PUC’s approval” of permits that would allow the pipeline to cross public bodies of water. Enbridge declined to comment on the Sierra Club’s statement.
On top of the expected legal challenges, Enbridge still needs several state and federal permits before construction can begin.
Environmental review 'adequate'
The supplemental environmental review was required after the Minnesota Court of Appeals in June said the company's proposal was inadequate because it did not consider an oil spill's impact on Lake Superior and its watershed.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce released a supplement to the proposed $2.9 billion pipeline project's environmental impact statement that said an oil spill along the proposed Enbridge Line 3 replacement line would have minimal impacts on Spirit Lake and the Lake Superior watershed, but environmental groups have questioned that modeling.
Opponents of the pipeline argued the supplemental study considered an oil spill at only one water crossing, Little Otter Creek, in the Lake Superior watershed and that there are water crossings closer to Lake Superior that should have been examined.
Louise Miltich of the Minnesota Department of Commerce defended the supplemental study.
She told the PUC that the Court of Appeals only ordered more information on the impacts to Lake Superior, which was satisfied by studying the impact of a potential spill on Little Otter Creek. The creek flows into the St. Louis River, which in turn flows into Lake Superior.
“There is just one remaining issue and it’s about fixing a very specific gap,” Miltich said of the court’s order to study the impact of an oil spill on Lake Superior’s watershed.
During comments ahead of the vote, Scott Strand, an attorney for Friends of the Headwaters, said the Little Otter Creek site was too far east for a true assessment of the impacts on Lake Superior.
“You have to look at the other water crossings,” Strand said to PUC members.
Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, a native-led environmental group, urged the PUC to study the impact of a spill on a “more broad scale.”
“Looking at Little Otter Creek was entirely inadequate,” LaDuke said.
Commissioner Schuerger sided with opponents.
“I disagree that this (final environmental impact statement) is adequate,” Schuerger said, adding that he believes the record and law did not support using just a single site in the Lake Superior watershed to model a spill’s effect on the entire watershed.
Commissioners John Tuma, Valerie Means and PUC Chair Katie Sieben all voted in favor of deeming the environmental review “adequate.”
“I, myself, find the analysis sufficient,” Sieben said. She added that the modeling of a spill on Little Otter Creek was similar to other points along the route that were analyzed outside the watershed.
The PUC is typically a five-member panel; however, former PUC Vice Chair Dan Lipshultz’s term ended last month. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, is considering candidates to fill that vacancy.
Enbridge's proposed pipeline would carry 760,000 barrels of oil (31.92 million gallons) per day from Alberta, Canada, to the Enbridge terminal in Superior.
Certificate of need approved
The court also required the PUC to reconsider the project’s certificate of need, a key approval that says the pipeline is needed by the state of Minnesota, when it objected.
On Monday, however, the PUC voted 3-1 to approve the certificate of need with Schuerger voting against it, reversing his June 2018 vote.
Schuerger argued new information since 2018 shows demand and need for oil would fall, including an increasingly electric transportation fleet and a change in the way Enbridge will apportion its space on the pipeline to customers.
He also cited fossil fuel’s impact on climate change.
“The science on climate change is entirely clear … we must take actions to reduce climate change,” Schuerger said.
Other commissioners said Enbridge had met the burden of proof of the pipeline’s need, and that they were legally obligated to approve it. They also said a new Line 3 would be better than its aging predecessor.
“This old pipeline has significant integrity issues and is a safety risk,” Means said
Pipeline route set
The PUC also reaffirmed the route it set in 2018 that takes the pipeline from the Minnesota-North Dakota border to the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
But instead of following Enbridge’s existing pipeline, the new route is largely set farther south through much of Minnesota, avoiding the Leech Lake Reservation. It will continue to pass through the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Schuerger voted against the largely new route and argued the pipeline should follow the existing pipeline corridor through the state because the new route would disrupt otherwise undisturbed and pipeline-free land.
Ultimately, commissioners voted 3-1 to approve the route permit.
“This is a tough decision. … The decision was the best decision we could make on this record,” Tuma said.
Supporters of the project argue that to allow the current pipeline, which is more than 50 years old, to continue carrying oil would pose leak and spill risks of its own. Eric Swanson of Enbridge testified during Monday's hearing that the pipeline is "deteriorating at an accelerated rate."
Many who favor the project point out that it takes far less fossil fuel to pipe oil than it does to ship it by train or truck, options which create further spill risks. New pipelines are built to higher standards and with stronger material, they say, and thus less prone to accidents.
"Voting for it is actually helping to make Minnesota environmentally friendly," said Justin Hornback, an Oklahoma organizer with the United Association union who attended Monday's hearing.
Environmental groups pushed back on those claims Monday, referencing federal government findings that suggest newer pipelines leak or spill more often than older ones. Their statements to the commission touched often on climate change, which they said the replacement project does little to curb.
But hours of sometimes emotional testimony did not appear to sway the commissioners, who remained straight-faced throughout the hearing.
Monday's votes marked a significant victory not only for Enbridge but for organized labor as well. The company in December inked an agreement for the project that it estimates will create 4,200 union construction jobs, roughly half of which will go to local tradesmen.
With the exception of Schuerger, though, some opponents of the project said they that the commissioners did not take their concerns to heart.
Members of Minnesota's Native American community expressed particular dissatisfaction, with some saying that they longed for the pipeline to be shut down altogether. The proposed route for the project abuts several of the tribal reservations located in Minnesota and cuts across the Fond du Lac reservation.
The out-of-state labor that the project would require has raised concerns among some Native Americans in Minnesota about the potential of violence against women in their communities.
One woman disrupted the hearing by standing up to shout, “No more missing and murdered indigenous women!”
Officials with the trade unions involved with the project have said in response that they are committed to the safety of the pipeline’s neighbors. Enbridge, meanwhile, has pledged about $100 million dollars in job training and other support to tribal citizens and business owners.
Debra Topping, who travelled several hours from the Fond du Lac reservation to attend the hearing, said earlier in the afternoon that a safer pipeline would still pose an environmental risk that the Lake Superior Chippewa do not wish to take.
“It’s not needed,” she said. “There’s already enough pipelines.”
This story was updated several times with additional quotes and information from the hearing as decisions were made. The final version was published at 5:57 p.m. The initial version was posted at 11:57 a.m.