Regulators approve environmental review for Line 3

Supporters of Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota parked a truck near the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, carrying pipeline segments signed by people who back the project. They contend that replacing the aging pipeline with new pipe will provide the safest way to carry Line 3's oil from Alberta to Enbridge's terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

IRON RANGE — Gov. Tim Walz’s administration has plans to file an appeal to try and overturn the approval of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission signed off on the project for a second time earlier this year.

The appeal is expected to be filed on Wednesday by the Minnesota Department of Commerce after the governor faced pressure from opponents and supporters of the project last week ahead of the appeal deadline. Environmental and tribal groups have already filed their appeals, while labor unions and Iron Range Democrats urged the administration to allow the PUC’s approval to stand.

The DFL governor said in a statement Tuesday evening that the appeal is part of the ongoing process, as permitting agencies continue to process applications submitted by Enbridge. Walz anticipates “decisions on those permits in the coming months.”

“When it comes to any project that impacts our environment and our economy, we must follow the process, the law and the science,” he said. “The Department of Commerce’s appeal is part of that process, and it is important to ensure the clarity in the steps that Minnesota takes to evaluate and approve projects like this one.”

Enbridge spokespersons said through a statement that the company is disappointed and the appeal “is not supported by evidence or Minnesota law.”

The decision to appeal inflamed Range DFLers who have withstood intense criticism of the state’s coronavirus pandemic response led by Walz, that built up to Minnesota House Republicans blocking a bonding bill that stood to create construction jobs throughout the state.

With another delay to Line 3, so too are thousands of estimated jobs in construction and support positions through transportation and logistics, according to Enbridge, with about $160 million to be spent on local workforce payroll. Enbridge signed a project-labor agreement in 2019 to use a union workforce of about 2,000 workers to build the project.

Those same Democrats have pushed the governor behind closed doors on $30 million for the East Range Development Achievement Center, reopening parts of the state and trying to prevent the closure of the Togo Correctional Facility in Itasca County. They’ve also pushed back on previous challenges to Line 3 by the Walz and Dayton administrations.

“I’m beyond frustrated and disappointed by this decision,” State Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, said on Tuesday. “This project has been through a rigorous environmental review process that included over 70 public hearings, and it’s earned approval from the PUC twice. It’s time for the delays to stop and get the project started so folks in northern Minnesota can get back work. This isn’t the ‘One Minnesota’ we were promised.”

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which includes two commissioners the DFL governor appointed, has approved the pipeline.

But the state Department of Commerce, which acts as a public interest advocate in cases before the PUC, has argued that Line 3 isn't needed, and that Enbridge failed to prove that there's sufficient demand for the Canadian oil the pipeline would carry.

Under former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, the Commerce Department appealed the PUC's approval of Line 3.

Enbridge spokespersons have said the nearly $3 billion proposal will replace an existing, aging oil pipeline that requires significant maintenance with a new line that could carry twice as much oil along a different route through northern Minnesota.

The administration was joined by environmental and tribal groups in filing an appeal, including a joint filing by Honor the Earth, the Sierra Club, and the Red Lake and White Earth Bands.

“Yet again, the PUC has refused to acknowledge the reality that Line 3 would pose untenable costs to Minnesota, all to deliver tar sands oil we don’t need," said Sierra Club North Star Chapter Director Margaret Levin. "Their bad decision — ignoring state's agencies' recommendations, and based on a faulty process — would be devastating for Minnesota's clean water and communities. The Court must reject the PUC's decision once and for all."

MPR News reported Tuesday that Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley is set to face questions about Line 3 at a Senate confirmation hearing this Friday. The Senate GOP used its majority last week to reject the confirmation of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. Republicans cited concerns about her job performance. But Walz and other Democrats said it was really a political payback for how the governor has used his executive powers to manage the pandemic. They also expressed fears that Republicans could oust additional cabinet members to press their grievances with the administration.

MPR News contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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