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Oil pipelines still in limbo after three years

Small-town coffee shops. State commission hearings. The Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Two Enbridge pipeline projects that would traverse northern Minnesota have been discussed in just about every venue in the state -- and there’s still so much more to do before the Sandpiper and Line 3 replacement pipelines can be built.

The Sandpiper project first began seeking regulatory approval in 2012, and after years of delays, the fight is not even close to ending, project director Paul Eberth said.

“Here we are at the end of 2015 with a pretty lengthy process still ahead of us,” he told Forum News Service on Tuesday at Enbridge’s Edina offices.

Company officials had originally hoped construction of Sandpiper would begin late last year. After a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision prompted the state’s Public Utilities Commission to place the permitting process on hold in October, Eberth said he was hopeful to begin construction of the pipeline by the end of 2016.

The fate of the Line 3 project is closely tied to Sandpiper, as well. Sandpiper is proposed to run a 616-mile route from western North Dakota to an existing Enbridge terminal in Clearbrook, Minn., then across the state to Superior, Wis. The current Line 3 is to be deactivated, while the replacement Line 3 is to be routed along side of Sandpiper starting at the Clearbrook terminal. But for that to happen, Sandpiper’s route must first be approved.

Line 3 Project Director Barry Simonson said Tuesday that Line 3 “has been stuck in a quagmire” because of the uncertainty of Sandpiper’s route.

The process for getting a pipeline built has never been an easy one. Compliance with state and federal law means thousands of hours spent on surveying and studying potential human and environmental impacts of a new pipeline.

Enbridge officials said the company has spent about 190,000 work hours in its route selection process for Sandpiper and Line 3.

In Minnesota, several governmental agencies -- the Departments of Commerce and Natural Resources among them -- also spend months analyzing a pipeline application’s potential route.

The PUC is responsible for granting two state-level permits, a permit approving the route and a certificate showing the applicant has demonstrated need for the pipeline.

Enbridge obtained a certificate of need for the Sandpiper project in June, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the decision Oct. 1, saying the PUC erred in granting the certificate of need before a full environmental impact statement had been completed.

The error stems from the commission’s decision to split deliberation of the certificate of need and routing permit for Sandpiper. The state has traditionally considered both permits concurrently, with the EIS tied to the routing permit.

Enbridge has urged the PUC to pursue the EIS following the court’s decision. The company had previously opposed including the environmental review as part of the certificate of need process.

“Enbridge’s decision to support the development of an EIS is not one made lightly,” Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little said in October. “The significant delays in the process have far-reaching impacts not just for Enbridge, but for the citizens of Minnesota… In order to solidify the regulatory process and create substantial safety and financial benefits for the state of Minnesota, Enbridge believes an EIS is the best option to ensure those benefits become reality.”

Enbridge has advanced further along in the permitting process in the other two states to be impacted by Sandpiper and Line 3, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Simonson said it was very likely construction on the 13-mile Wisconsin portion of Line 3 would begin soon, a crucial start to the project necessary as the pipeline built in 1968 deteriorates.

Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at rjeffries@forumcomm.com and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.

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