ST. PAUL — State regulators on Friday, Dec. 4, allowed construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement to proceed, dashing the hopes of two tribal nations in Minnesota that sought to halt the project.
The State Public Utilities Commission voted 4-1 against a motion to stay, or pause, the project, which is slowly getting underway in northern Minnesota. Issues raised in the request heard Friday, Commission Chair Katie Sieben said, have been addressed in the past both by the PUC and other state agencies.
"The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission respects and recognizes the sovereignty of tribal nations. I recognize that this pipeline has created differences of opinion and division among tribal nations and members," Sieben said.
"The permitting and review of this replacement project has been transparent. The commission's decisions have been based on science and fact, and followed Minnesota statues and rules. And we all remain committed to do the best by Minnesota, which includes clean air, water and land, family-supporting jobs and healthy communities," she continued.
The decision comes just days after a separate state government agency, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, approved the project’s stormwater construction permit — the last of many permissions required for crews to finally break ground begin replacing the pipeline. When complete, the new 340-mile pipeline will have the capacity to carry some 760,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to a terminal in Superior, Wis.
Friday’s special PUC meeting, though, concerned a legal motion brought by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa seeking a stay of the PUC’s approval of what is called a certificate of need for the project as well as its route permit. The tribes asked for the stay because a separate legal challenge to the project still needs to be resolved in appellate court, and argued that the arrival of construction workers along the pipeline’s proposed route could worsen infection rates of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
But the commissioners ultimately decided to let the project proceed unhindered, saying that a stay would deal a blow to workers contracted for it while allowing the existing pipeline to deteriorate.
In letters to the PUC, trade labor unions — among the project's most ardent supporters — said much the same thing. Approving the stay motion would jeopardize the employment of thousands of union members, they said, some of whom have already begun to form up for work along the pipeline's proposed route.
Responding to COVID-19 concerns, union representatives also said Friday that Enbridge, the Canadian energy company that owns and operates the pipeline, has laid out health guidelines for construction workers that include social distancing and masking requirements as well as temperature checks.
"We’ve been obviously planning for this for a long time," Laborers' International Union of North America Campaign Director for Minnesota Kevin Pranis said Friday.
In a statement Friday, Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner reiterated the company's stance that previous regulatory reviews of the project confirmed it as sound.
"We hope all parties will now accept the outcome of this thorough, science based review of Line 3," Kellner said.
Commissioner Matthew Schuerger, who has previously voted against Line 3 matters that came before the PUC, was the sole commissioner to support the stay request heard Friday. For the PUC to let construction proceed when the courts could still conceivably rule against the project, he said, interferes with the court's ability to make a meaningful ruling on it.
Both tribes are party to the case in appellate court, which was consolidated recently with similar cases brought by environmental groups and the Minnesota Department of Commerce and centers on the question of whether the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency sufficiently weighed the pipeline project's potential to contribute to climate change before approving it.
Other commissioners were critical of the tribes' decision to file a stay request only recently when the certificate of need and route permit were issued months ago. To vote affirmatively on it now, Commissioner Valerie Means said, would be "unconscionable" to the workers contracted for the project.
Approving the stay request, according to Commissioner John Tuma, would also be out of step with thoughts Gov. Tim Walz expressed about the project this week. Asked Monday, Nov. 30 if he thought construction should continue while the appeal is ongoing, Walz said that’s up to the courts to decide.
"I think construction will go forward," Walz said. "If the courts choose to issue a stay, we would certainly honor that but I have not heard that at this time."
But activists such as Winona LaDuke, founder of the non-profit Honor the Earth, which is challenging the project in court, argue Friday's decision will render the appellate case useless should Enbridge finish the pipeline before it can be resolved.
"The PUC’s predictable actions today again demonstrate that the regulatory process in Minnesota is brazenly pro-oil industry," LaDuke said in a statement Friday.
Environmentalists and tribal nations in Minnesota, by whose lands the new pipeline is proposed to be laid, strongly oppose the project and say it poses oil spill risks. Enbridge has maintained that the structure in its current state presents spill risks of its own due to old age and poor shape.
Replacing the pipeline with one fashioned from newer and more durable material would minimize those risks, the company has said. Segments of the pipeline in Canada, North Dakota and Wisconsin have already been replaced in such a way.