ST. PAUL - Despite a massive new document having "final" in its name, this pipeline permitting process is far from over.
On Thursday, Aug. 17, the state released the final environmental impact statement on the Enbridge Line 3 replacement project, another step toward the approval or denial of a new oil pipeline across Minnesota.
The document makes no recommendations but instead provides a framework for continued debate over the pipeline and, ultimately, a decision by the state Public Utilities Commission.
There are still more public and evidentiary hearings to come this fall for the $6.5 billion pipeline, which would carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta and take a new route between Clearbrook, Minn., and the Superior, Wis., terminal. After a recommendation from an administrative law judge overseeing the process, the PUC is expected to make a decision next spring.
In an additional wrinkle for the project, first proposed in 2015, some pipeline opponents already plan to challenge the adequacy of the environmental review, a process that will stretch into December.
"It's ridiculous such a large project has such a fast-track process," activist Winona LaDuke said. "I'd like a system that works, and we don't have that. I want to trust the government of Minnesota to do the right thing," which she said would be a no-build alternative.
Enbridge, which has started building the Line 3 replacement in Wisconsin and Canada, said it is "pleased to have reached this step in the regulatory process."
"The time is now to replace and modernize Line 3 with the newest, safest pipeline technology," spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in an email. "We are fully committed to safely constructing and operating this important project - through countless hours of field work, planning and regulatory processes we believe the Line 3 Replacement Project continues to be the safest and most efficient option for reliable energy transportation for our region."
The company has said it hopes to have the pipeline online in 2019 and has said thousands of jobs would be supported by the construction. The replacement pipeline would restore the original capacity of the 50-year-old Line 3.
A draft environmental impact statement was issued in May and received more than 2,800 comments, which helped direct changes to the document. Many tribal and environmental justice issues got a closer look in the final version, as did Enbridge's plan to clean out, monitor and leave the old Line 3 in the ground once the new pipeline comes online
"Tribal members who submitted comments during this EIS process and provided input for the draft EIS reported that all of the proposed routes, including either keeping the current Line 3 in place or abandoning it, would add to the negative mental, spiritual, and physical health impacts already disproportionately suffered by American Indian populations," reads the review.
The possibility of protests like those at North Dakota's Standing Rock Reservation last year likely weighs heavy on the minds of state officials.
While the preferred Line 3 replacement route avoids established reservations, it does cross a disputed section of the White Earth Reservation.
Various alternative routes and shipping methods were studied in the review, with the preferred route typically having the lowest oil spill risk. Moving the oil by truck or rail faces the highest risk to sensitive areas, according to the review.
"Trucks and trains are more likely than pipelines to have small to medium accidents and spills," the report says. "Pipelines are less likely to have spills, but the amount of a pipeline's individual spill is likely to be greater."
Impacts on fish and wildlife habitats were about equal among different pipeline routes, though a route that runs far south of both Enbridge's mainline and preferred route would have "substantially less potential than the other route options to affect sites of biodiversity significance," according to the EIS, which added that "habitat fragmentation would be greatest for the applicant's preferred route."
Leaving the old Line 3 in the ground has caused some concern among property owners, though its proximity to other pipelines makes a complete removal risky in many areas, the EIS found.
The environmental review was prepared by the Department of Commerce along with the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.