BAXTER, Minn.-Representatives of Minnesotans for Line 3 stopped in Baxter Tuesday, May 15, to present their side of a debate that's been a central focus of environmental issues in the state since 2013, when the Enbridge Line 3 replacement oil pipeline first was proposed.

Billed as an informational presentation, the room was furnished for a group setting. One person attended.

Baxter was to be the first stop in a tour that includes Fergus Falls; Park Rapids; Fargo, N.D.; Grand Forks, N.D.; and Bemidji-a statewide trek from May 15-16. The discussion in the Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes was hosted by Bob Schoneberger, the CEO of United Piping Inc. and founding chairperson of Minnesotans for Line 3. United Piping Inc. is a subcontractor in the Line 3 project.

This tour comes at a time when the Line 3 replacement project is reaching fruition. The Minnesota State House of Representatives opted to fast track the project with a vote of 74-51, thereby bypassing a review by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which was slated to give its verdict on the replacement line in June.

Minnesotans for Line 3

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"We're just people in support of replacing our country's infrastructure," Schoneberger said, describing what Minnesotans for Line 3 stands for. "Specifically, here we're talking Line 3. We just think that's important, especially when you've got aging infrastructure. It needs to be rebuilt from time to time, and it should be rebuilt."

Compared to the original pipeline laid in the 60s, Schoneberger said new construction features stronger steel that's resistant to corrosion, a powdery epoxy coating bonded to the steel and a polyethylene cover, much like an industrial-grade electrical tape. Technology also enables better monitoring of the pipeline, Schoneberger said.

Much of Minnesotans for Line 3's purpose is driven by economic motivations, according to Schoneberger. By providing an abundance of resources, such as crude oil, he noted, it contributes to the general well-being of a given population. Installing a new pipeline returns the influx of oil to levels the region needs and has come to expect, especially with crude coming at a premium when railroads pull up the slack.

In terms of job creation, Line 3 is expected to entail the construction of five "spreads," or about 75-100 miles of piping. Schoneberger said local economies can expect anywhere between 500 to 700 construction jobs for each spread, garnering higher wages that will trickle back into area businesses, as well.

Schoneberger characterized the project as not only economically beneficial, but a boon for the environment as well. He cautioned against the notion that pipeline leaks are inevitable.

"No, leaks are not inevitable," Schoneberger said, adding reports of leaks can misconstrue the situation to be more than it is. He said leaks are uniformly reported, whether they are five gallons or 5,000 gallons. Both register as a single leak in the tally. Instead, the actual chance for leaks is "beyond remote," as Schoneberger put it.

The opposition

Ojibwe communities in the northern parts of the state have been vocal in their opposition to the pipeline. Although retreading the old 60s-era route wouldn't cross any reservation land, it would conflict with the traditional homeland of Native Americans, said Frank Bibeau, a tribal attorney with the White Earth Ojibwe. There, tribes enjoy special rights in terms of hunting, fishing and other land usages.

Jim Reents, a co-founder of the Northern Water Alliance of Minnesota, an advocacy group originally created to oppose the Sandpiper pipeline, said the designation of the Line 3 initiative as a "replacement project" is dishonest because about two-thirds of the pipe will be built in new areas if Enbridge is granted its preferred route.

"It crosses pretty much every major drainage across the northern part of the state, every major source of water for not only the Twin Cities, but a lot of people above the Twin Cities, as well as down the Mississippi River," Reents said during a phone interview. He noted his organization's opposition isn't grounded against the overarching idea of a pipeline as much as its placement.

"There are places you can put pipelines that don't necessarily impact groundwater but surface waters in the state (as well), especially in a state where we make an issue of having 10,000 lakes. We depend on tourism, yet we put a pipe through the middle of that," Reents said. "The new corridor is inappropriate in a water-rich environment."

In contrast to Schoneberger, Reents said many problems are the result of not just large oil spills but miniscule "pin leaks" that gradually bleed oil into the surrounding water table. These tiny breeches go undetected because sensors in place are calibrated to ignore 1 to 2 percent variations in flow.

"Pipelines leak," said Reents. "It's been found in Canada that a high percentage of pipeline leaks are caused by human error. I understand humans are still involved in this process. You can have a good system, the best checks and balances, and one guy has a bad day, comes to work and screws it up."