Otter Tail County residents are starting to have their say on the Sandpiper Pipeline project.
The pipeline, proposed by Enbridge Energy, would transport crude oil from Tioga, N.D. to Superior, Wisc. via a 610-mile route across northern Minnesota.
Enbridge's preferred route travels from North Dakota to Clearbrook, Minn., then south to Park Rapids and east to Superior from there.
But individual property owners, environmental groups and government agencies have since proposed eight all-new routes for review by the state, and one of those routes cuts through Otter Tail County.
That alternate route, suggested by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, would follow the Viking Natural Gas pipeline across the northeastern corner of the county, past communities including Frazee, Perham, New York Mills and Wadena. Regulators with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission want to consider a modified version of this option more seriously, ordering a further environmental review of the route.
According to an Aug. 7 Star Tribune article, the commission has also left the door slightly open on the other seven all-new routes proposed, seeking more public comment and information on those routes. Another 54, more minor, proposed changes to Enbridge's preferred route are also being considered.
What is the Sandpiper Pipeline project?
Enbridge views the $2.6 billion project as fuel for energy independence and economic growth, reducing the nation's reliance on crude oil imports from other countries.
“It really supports the overall energy independence for North America,” Enbridge's vice president of major projects execution, Lee Monthei, told Forum News Service last week.
Enbridge says the Sandpiper project would create an estimated 1,500 construction jobs, and communities along the pipeline would benefit from property taxes paid by the company, which are estimated to be about $25 million annually after the pipeline's first operational year.
The Sandpiper Pipeline would also help replace an estimated 4,354 trucks or 2,052 railcars as a means of transport for oil.
Monthei said Enbridge weighed the pros and cons of every route scenario, ultimately preferring less populated areas that are less likely to grow, which could be a conflict in the future. The company says more than 75 percent of its proposed route follows existing rights-of-way.
“We are listening very closely to all of the suggestions for alternative routing,” Monthei said.
However, the company objected to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's decision to consider an altogether new route, which will considerably delay the project; Enbridge had hoped to have the pipeline in service by early 2016. The all-new routes proposed would also be longer, and more costly, for the company.
“Sandpiper will be a key, long-term link from North Dakota to a variety of markets,” Enbridge explained of the project. “It will transport Bakken crude to Enbridge terminals in Clearbrook and Superior. From those terminals, the crude oil can be shipped on Enbridge and other pipelines to Midwest and North American refineries.”
What are people saying about it?
At last count, more than 1,000 public comments about the Sandpiper project had been submitted to the Public Utilities Commission, and all but about 40 of those were written in opposition to all or part of Enbridge's proposed route.
Minnesota residents, environmental groups, the MPCA and the Department of Natural Resources have all cited concerns about the pipeline's potential environmental impact.
Opponents say Enbridge's preferred route poses a risk to the Mississippi River headwaters, numerous Minnesota lakes, wetlands, watersheds, state parks and wild rice areas.
Friends of the Headwaters, an organized citizen's group out of Park Rapids, has been notably vocal about how the route could jeopardize the state’s natural resources in the case of an oil spill or leak.
“Pipelines fail,” Friends of the Headwaters states on its website. “Over the course of their 25-30 year life spans, most pipelines have some issues or 'incidents,' and some of those issues have terrible consequences for our land and water.”
Enbridge boasts a safe delivery record of better than 99.999 percent over the past 10 years, but there have been spills.
In 2010, the company reported a 30-inch pipeline rupture near Marshall, Mich., which released 843,000 gallons ultimately into the Kalamazoo River. The Environmental Protection Agency reported the spill was contained to about 80 river miles from Lake Michigan. Dredging activities continued this summer to remove oil-contaminated materials.
Enbridge has said it has taken steps to prevent such spills in the future.
Last week, during the latest public comment period on the Sandpiper project – and the first one since Otter Tail County has been in the picture – Jeff Stabnow, an active member and past president of the Otter Tail County Coalition of Lake Associations, or COLA, submitted a letter of concern.
Working in communication with COLA's current president, David Sethre, Stabnow wrote, “We citizens in Otter Tail County along a newly approved alternative route...for this pipeline have not had adequate or sufficient time to fully respond.”
Mirroring a comment submitted by the Minnesota COLA, Stabnow requested additional time and more public meetings to better understand “the scope and scale of this project, the permitting process...our rights as citizens to be fully involved and how to both protect and exercise our legal rights.”
He also asked that the seven other alternative routes proposed for the Sandpiper Pipeline be given equal consideration by regulators throughout the environmental review process.
The pipeline was a topic of discussion at Otter Tail County COLA's annual meeting in Ottertail last Thursday.
How likely is it that the pipeline will go through Otter Tail County?
That's still unclear, though changes to the MPCA’s recommended route brings the likelihood down.
The MPCA’s suggested route has been modified since it was originally proposed, and it’s that modified version that the Public Utilities Commission is currently most interested in.
Modifications to the route were suggested by the state's Energy and Environmental Review and Analysis staff in a July report.
The modified route would travel south out of the Park Rapids area and, from there, further south and east through the counties of Todd, Wadena and Morrison, paralleling the Minnesota Pipeline rights-of-way until intersecting with the Viking Natural Gas Pipeline in Morrison County and continuing to Superior from there.
This modified version of the route just barely avoids Otter Tail County, veering east of the county at its northeastern tip.
Dan Wolf, an assistant executive secretary with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, said this modified route is the one that the commission has ordered a further environmental review of.
That doesn’t put Otter Tail County out of the picture yet, though, he cautioned.
Wolf said the commission is still considering public comments and gathering more information on all the proposed alternate routes, including the route as originally suggested by the MPCA, which goes through Otter Tail County.
The final choice of routes isn’t expected to happen until next year, after a public comment and review process.
Forum News Service Reporter Renee Richardson contributed to this article.