Public hearings next week to determine Minnesota's 'need' for Sandpiper pipeline

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will take public testimony next week at five hearings across the state on a new Enbridge Energy Sandpiper pipeline set to run from Beaver Lodge, N.D., to Superior, Wis.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will take public testimony next week at five hearings across the state on a new Enbridge Energy Sandpiper pipeline set to run from Beaver Lodge, N.D., to Superior, Wis.

This round of hearings is intended to focus primarily on the “need” for the new pipeline - both Enbridge’s need to serve their customers - oil companies - and whether Minnesota really needs another pipeline to carry oil that will mostly go to other states.

Usually the commission and an administrative law judge also would hear testimony on possible routes for the proposed pipeline. But that issue remains in play, and - with several groups pressing for new routes to be considered - won’t see public hearings until later in 2015.

That delay over potential routes - some groups want the pipeline to avoid northern Minnesota lakes and rivers, or avoid the region altogether - already has set the project back at least a year. Enbridge announced in September that the 616-mile pipeline won’t be ready until at least 2017, a year later than the company’s original estimate.

And that’s assuming it gets PUC approval in 2015.


The $2.6 billion line is needed, supporters say, to alleviate the bottleneck of crude oil that North Dakota is pumping for the rest of America but for which there aren’t enough pipelines or railcars to ship it to refineries. Sandpiper, if built, would move 15.8 million gallons of oil a day across northern Minnesota, about 20 percent of all of the crude out of the Bakken oilfield region.

The oil would move from Superior down other lines to Chicago and other eastern cities much more safely than it would on railroad cars, supporters say.

Sandpiper would be among the state’s most expensive private construction projects - more than double the cost of the new Vikings football stadium in Minneapolis, for example. That’s on top of hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Enbridge to expand its Alberta Clipper line from Canada to Superior, increase storage capacity in Superior and increase pipeline capacity from Superior to refineries in states to the south and east.

Across the U.S. and Canada, Enbridge has a staggering $44 billion in pipeline projects either underway or in regulatory review and ready to build.

Enbridge is expected to rally supporters of the pipeline at next week’s hearings, including Twin Ports business and labor leaders, who say the project will not just support thousands of construction jobs - about half from Minnesota, half transient “pipeliners” who follow the projects - but also expand Enbridge’s growing presence in Duluth and Superior. The company now has about 800 employees based in Duluth and Superior.

Moreover, supporters say Minnesota should approve the project to foster interstate commerce.

“There’s value to the project for Minnesota, for the taxes we pay, $34 million in property taxes in 2011. But there’s also a value for Minnesota’s neighbors who need this oil,’’ Paul Eberth, Enbridge’s project manager for the Sandpiper project, said in a recent interview. “Our customers have asked us to build this pipeline. There’s a demand for this oil. We are simply moving oil that’s going to move, likely otherwise by rail.”

But some residents along the line, Ojibwe activists and environmental groups say Sandpiper would put northern Minnesota waterways at risk for no real value to Minnesotans. Most if not all of the oil will go to other states, opponents note, at a time when the U.S. seems awash in cheap oil and gas. Two state agencies, the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources, also have raised formal concerns.


 “The hearings are an opportunity for the judge to hear directly from the public,” said Kathryn Hoffman, attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “This new pipeline would stretch hundreds of miles across some of Minnesota's most beautiful and pristine areas, including lakes, forests and wetlands. The judge has already heard from Enbridge. Now he needs to hear from regular Minnesotans.”

The various opponents of Enbridge’s preferred route have proposed six alternate routes. But a report issued in mid-December by the state Commerce Department for the PUC said all six of the alternate routes are closer to population centers and cross over or near just as many or even more lakes, rivers and wetlands.

Also in December, two of the opposition groups, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Friends of the Headwaters, jointly filed suit in Ramsey County asking a state district court judge to order a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement for the Sandpiper project.  

The groups name both the Public Utilities Commission and the state Environmental Quality Board as defendants and have asked the court to delay any decision on the certificate of need until after an EIS is conducted. They say that not only do the construction and route of the pipeline need to be scrutinized but also the potential for future oil spills, especially in northern Minnesota's water-rich environment.

Enbridge already is working on expanding its Alberta Clipper pipeline from northwestern Canada to Superior, adding increased pumping capacity without adding any new pipeline. The company also has announced plans for an all-new pipe to replace its aged Line 3 from Alberta to Superior.

First announced in March, Enbridge hopes to have the $7 billion, 1,031-mile new Line 3 Replacement project moving oil by late 2017 - and it may well follow whatever route is decided for Sandpiper.

The current Line 3 is 46 years old and has been undergoing almost constant maintenance. Its original capacity was 750,000 barrels per day but has been reduced to 410,000 barrels per day because of restrictions on the pressure in the pipe, company officials have said.

The new line would allow the full 750,000-barrel capacity, for an increase of 340,000 barrels per day of Canadian crude entering the U.S., or about 14.3 million additional gallons per day.


The Line 3 Replacement probably will follow the existing route from northern Alberta to Clearbrook, Minn., but then could follow either the Alberta Clipper or old Line 3 route to Superior, or move south and follow the route where Enbridge wants to build the new Sandpiper line.

Enbridge Energy is based in Houston and is a subsidiary of Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. The Sandpiper line is officially being proposed by North Dakota Pipeline Co. LLC, a subsidiary of Enbridge Energy.


  Sandpiper pipeline public hearings

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will take public testimony at these hearings next week:

Monday:  St. Paul River Centre, Ballrooms A & B

Tuesday: Duluth Holiday Inn, Great Lakes Ballroom, Lake Huron Room

Wednesday: Bemidji State University, Hobson Union Ballroom


Thursday: Crookston Inn & Convention Center, Ballrooms 1 and 2

Friday: St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center, Herberger Suite

All meetings begin at 2 p.m.


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