THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — Boom times, brought on by construction of a new oil pipeline, are potentially right around the corner in Thief River Falls.

But exactly when isn’t yet clear.

Construction on Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline, which will cut through northern Minnesota near the city, has been tangled in controversy and regulatory processes for years — pitting concerns about Native American sovereignty and the environment against developers and local communities hopeful for economic stimulus. This past summer, a court battle left unresolved questions regarding potential oil spills in Lake Superior, and Minnesota regulators asked the state Commerce Department to take a closer look and report back before the end of November. It’s a step closer to a resolution.

“I think everybody’s just waiting to see what they’re going to do and OK the permits,” said Thief River Falls City Council member Curtis Howe. “I think it’s just a matter of time and it’s going to happen. I think it’s going to be a great impact for us.”

The same is true for Antonio Franklin, the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“We know the economic impact that it will have here on our county … and just the amount of workers that will come through our community,” Franklin said. “They’ll be using our hotels, living here for a while. We know there’s going to be a huge economic impact here.”

But the pipeline has been a source of controversy, too, with environmental protesters concerned that construction would further entrench fossil fuels into the local economic fabric. Native American groups also have voiced strong concerns about the project, citing the pipeline’s proximity to lands important to native history and culture. Winona LaDuke, a prominent Native American activist, criticized the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision not to take a closer look at the issue in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last month.

“The court has decided that our dignity, rights, sacred sites, spiritual foundation and well-being should be trampled for a Canadian corporation,” she wrote.

Leaders in Thief River Falls acknowledge the opposition. Franklin noted the need to “honor and respect” opponents of the project.

Howe argued that the project is meant to replace an aging pipeline, and said an oil spill “can happen anytime” — with rail cars as well as oil pipelines.

“If it’s getting old, we need to replace it,” Howe said. “It’s a good, efficient way of transporting oil.”

The 340-mile pipeline, an expected $2.9 billion project for portions in the U.S., is widely expected to bring more than 750,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to a terminal on the western tip of Lake Superior.

It gained approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in 2018, but has faced challenges — both legal and regulatory — in the months since.

The line would come into the United States in extreme northeast North Dakota, then jut into Minnesota on its way to Lake Superior.