New proposed route for Sandpiper pipeline would go farther south

PERHAM, Minn. -- An alternative route for the Sandpiper pipeline route that would take a more southern route across north-central Minnesota seems to be much more of a possibility after two recent reports.

PERHAM, Minn. - An alternative route for the Sandpiper pipeline route that would take a more southern route across north-central Minnesota seems to be much more of a possibility after two recent reports.

Canada-based Enbridge Energy has proposed an oil pipeline route of more than 600 miles from western North Dakota to its terminal in Superior, Wis. The Minnesota portion of that route would go from East Grand Forks to a terminal at Clearbrook, then through the Bemidji and Park Rapids areas to Duluth and then Superior.

Several alternatives have been proposed as the company seeks approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Recent reports indicate a more southern route is more likely, says a former regional director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who has been closely following the controversial issue.

The proposal known as the SA-03 route would go south from near East Grand Forks south to the far northeast corner of Clay County. It would then head southeast parallel to Interstate 94, but farther north, to North Branch on Interstate 35 in far eastern Minnesota before turning north to Superior. Counties along the route, from the north, are Polk, Norman, Clay, Becker, Otter Tail, Wadena, Todd, Morrison, Mille Lacs, Isanti, Benton, Carlton, Chisago, Clay, Isanti, Chisago, Pine, and then Carlton before hitting the Lake Superior ports.


Adam Heinen, a public utilities rates analyst with the Minnesota Department of Commerce Division of Energy Resources, conducted a review in November of the initially proposed route along with alternative routes to determine if any alternatives were suitable.

Heinen’s conclusion was that only two of the alternative routes were viable options.

“Based on my review, it is unlikely, absent additional information from the proposers, that the system alternatives, other than SA-03 (the route through Otter Tail County) and modified SA-03, would be able to achieve the claimed need,” Heinen wrote. “These two system alternatives would cost slightly more than the applicant’s preferred corridor; however, the additional costs are unlikely to impact the viability of the project for either uncommitted or committed shippers.”

A review by the Energy Environmental Review and Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Commerce found that, in general, “there is little difference in the environmental impact of the routes. All system alternatives would have similar effects on several resource categories including: geology/soils/groundwater, ecoregions, community features, cultural resources, and air emissions.”

Willis Mattison, who served as a regional director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Detroit Lakes before retiring in 2001, has reviewed both these reports and says it is clear that only the applicant route, the SA-03 route, and the modified SA-03 route are going to be under consideration by the PUC.

“The Becker, Otter Tail County line has fewer encounters with wetlands, waters and rice beds than the (Enbridge) preferred one,” Mattison said, explaining that in his opinion, the SA-03 line is the one most likely to be chosen by the Public Utilities Commission as the final route later this year.

While Mattison described the environmental report as “flawed,” he says the conclusions drawn in it would support the SA-03 route.

In later testimony to the Public Utilities Commission, Heinen said that the environmental report confirmed his belief that Enbridge’s prefered route and the SA-03 route were both acceptable.


Better route options exist

“It is boiling down to a choice between two very bad routes (the original route and SA-03) instead of a legitimate search for the best possible route,” Mattison said. “Better routes exist, this is intuitively obvious, but the process is being manipulated to discriminate against the better routes in favor of two very bad route choices.”

Mattison says he isn’t opposed to the pipelines in general, he just believes there are many alternative routes which would pose a lesser risk to the environment.

One key issue is the land above the pipelines, he said.

Pipelines that cut through a number of lakes and wetlands make spills both more difficult to locate, and impossible to fully clean up, Mattison said.

“From my experience, recovery of this oil is virtually impossible. You do the best with available technology and you leave the rest and wash your hands and say you did the best that you could,” he said.

Pipelines under agricultural land are better because spills are more easily noticed, and the damage to the environment is more easily corralled, according to Mattison.

Mattison argues that southern routes for the pipeline, which go through areas that are primarily agricultural, should have been under consideration, despite the fact the longer routes would be more costly to build.


Pipeline proponents back initial route

According to an Enbridge spokesperson, the route proposed by the company is the best option.

“We believe what we have proposed is the best action for the state of Minnesota,” Enbridge spokeswoman Christine Davis said. “It is the shortest route. It follows existing pipelines. It impacts fewer landowners, and high population areas and affects few natural resources.”

More than 90 percent of landowners along the initial route, as well as five of the nine counties involved, have signed off on the project, according to Davis.

“Those most directly impacted are supporters and are accepting of the pipeline,” Davis said.

Pipelines a perplexing process

The process began toward the end of 2013, when Enbridge initially applied for the certificate of need and the route permit.

The next step is an evidentiary hearing on the certificate of need application, which begins today. Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman from the Office of Administrative Hearings will hear testimony from Enbridge, as well as supporters and opponents of the pipeline.


Lipman will release a report in April. The report is non-binding, but will be used by the PUC, which will likely make its final decision on the certificate of need in June.

If the certificate of need is approved, another round of hearings, public comment periods and trials could take place before the PUC decides which route, if any, to permit.

The commission has the final authority to determine where pipelines can be placed, according to Dan Wolf of the PUC, who added that the process can still be appealed in the legal system.

Route choice courts controversy

The company’s preferred route for the Sandpiper Pipeline cuts through areas near the Mississippi River headwaters north of Park Rapids, a path that has drawn heat from many environmental groups because of the potential dangers to the environment.

The Bemidji-based organization Honor the Earth is challenging the pipeline project, including filing a suggestion for an alternative route that would follow Interstate 94.

Mattison described the process of changing the Sandpiper Pipeline route as “David versus Goliath.”

The issue, Mattison says, is that the onus for providing alternative routes is on those opposed to the plan, not the company proposing the pipeline or any governmental agencies involved with approving it.


“The cards are stacked against any alternative route,” Mattison said.

Nevertheless, eight alternative routes were proposed, ranging from routes along I-94 to ones cutting south of the Twin Cities.

There were even routes proposed to go straight to Chicago, where Mattison said most of the oil headed to Superior will end up anyway.

Enbridge has insisted the route must go through Superior, and to the existing Enbridge terminal in Clearbrook.

According to Mattison, though, ordinary citizens and even environmental groups often do not have the financial resources to mount successful challenges to pipeline routes.

“It’s a gargantuan task for lay citizens to mount,” Mattison said. “They have to hire experts, engineers analysts, geologists, biologists, ecologists, and all the experts it would take to prove an alternative route would be better.”

The price for getting an expert witness to testify for a project can range from $70,000 to $100,000, according to Mattison, who added that attorneys’ fees can reach $500,000.

Enbridge, on the other hand, has a virtual army of experts, according to Mattison.


“Citizens are just incapable of matching this type of polish, perfection and professionalism,” he said.

Forum News Service contributed to this report.

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