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Politicians weigh in on Sandpiper crude oil system

BEMIDJI -- In the shadow of a state decision Thursday to study alternative routes for the proposed $2.6 billion Sandpiper crude oil pipeline, politicians weighed in on whether to wait for new and different pathways through Minnesota or go ahead with Enbridge Energy's original proposed plan.

Enbridge, a Calgary-based energy company, has said studying alternative routes could delay the project by at least three years, and building on a different route could mean as much as $455 million in additional costs.

One of the biggest political skirmishes over the line so far has been between U.S. Congressman Rick Nolan, D-Minn., and his Republican challenger, Stewart Mills.

Nolan urged the consideration of an alternative route in a July 22 letter to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. He agreed with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' concern that a potential spill could threaten wild rice beds and walleye spawning grounds. He advocated looking into a rerouting that carried the line through areas of heavy soil and avoided areas of sandy soil more vulnerable to contamination.

"Our way of life is tied to water in Minnesota, and it is imperative that we not put our environment, economy, and residents at risk, especially when there are viable alternatives available," he wrote.

He referenced a 2010 spill on an Enbridge line near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan that released 843,000 gallons of oil. Although Enbridge has improved their safety measures since then, he said, preventing a duplicate spill in Minnesota is essential.

"It is evident that Enbridge has learned important lessons from the 2010 spill in Michigan," Nolan wrote. "However, it is critical we do all we can to prevent any similar incident from occurring in the unique and pristine landscape of Minnesota."

Nolan was unavailable for comment Friday but the communications chief at Nolan's official Washington office, Steve Johnson, said Nolan's position had not changed since he wrote the letter.

Mills also could not be reached for comment but his communications director, Chloe Rockow, sent a statement on his behalf that criticized Nolan for supporting a rerouting of the line.

"It's frustrating that when politicians call for further study, more regulations, or different routes, these kinds of projects are talked to death," the statement read. "Here, it looks like Rick Nolan wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He says he supports the pipeline, but then also supports changes and regulations that will delay and kill the project. Rick needs to be honest about his stance on Sandpiper, especially because his vague position could be keeping Minnesotans from the many benefits this project will bring."

Mills compared Sandpiper to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is not planned to run through Minnesota but is also highly controversial.

"The Sandpiper Pipeline, like Keystone XL, is a much needed project that will not only have immediate economic benefits for our part of Minnesota, but will also create jobs, lower energy costs, strengthen our state's steel industry, and streamline a highly inefficient oil transportation process," Mills said in the statement.

Closer to home

The pipeline also drew differing opinions at the state level.

Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, said Wednesday the decision should be left up the Public Utilities Commission, the body that Thursday decided to study additional routes.

"It's a no-win situation politically," he said. "The commission is going to make that decision."

Delays associated with a pipeline rerouting might mean more oil train traffic that could clog up the system, inhibiting farmers' commodities shipments, Erickson said.

"If they get (the pipeline) moved, I'm fine with that," he said. "But then it's more years of railcars."

Dave Hancock, Erickson's GOP opponent, said while he was in favor of the line being built,

it was good that alternative routes were being studied.

"Obviously, we need to be good stewards of the environment," he said. "I approve of the line, but I don't have any problem trying to find... what is ecologically the best place to put it. If they're exploring an alternative route, I think that's probably a good thing."

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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