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Pipeline decision means a bitter winter in Minnesota

Apparently $5 million is the price to buy a pipeline route in Minnesota. In an unprecedented move, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission issued a 5-0 approval of the Certificate of Need for Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline. In a second move they ap...

Winona LaDuke of environmental activist group Honor the Earth speaks to a gathering hosted by the Brainerd chapter of the League of Women Voters on Thursday. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
Winona LaDuke
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Apparently $5 million is the price to buy a pipeline route in Minnesota. In an unprecedented move, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission issued a 5-0 approval of the Certificate of Need for Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline. In a second move they approved tentatively a route permit for the company's preferred route, awaiting modifications by the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe.

Never before has the Public Utilities Commission diverged from both the Administrative Law Judge and the Department of Commerce recommendations.

The Department of Commerce found no need for the pipeline, and the Administrative Law Judge after 68,000 testimonies and five times as much paperwork, had recommended against issuing a permit for a route.

By the end of the day, Enbridge, the third largest corporation in Canada, had a 4 point spike in it's stocks, in what has otherwise been a downward slide for the pipeline giant. Enbridge spent $5 million in lobbying the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, despite huge opposition across the state.

While commissioners approved the certificate, they were divided over the route. Late Thursday afternoon the panel in a 3-2 vote agreed to run the line along Enbridge's preferred route with modifications to avoid Big Sandy Lake. Big Sandy is where 400 Ojibwe died of starvation when denied treaty rations by the U.S. government in 1850. Outside the commission hearing room, White Earth tribal member Dawn Goodwin said the proposed pipeline route will travel through 1855 treaty lands.


"This is our time to assert those rights, and make them honor our treaties," she said. "Our treaties are guaranteed under the Constitution. It's the supreme law of the land. And they don't get it, they don't want to get it, and we're all prepared to stand up for our rights."

Legal counsel for Red Lake and White Earth bands Joe Plummer, along with attorneys from Fond du Lac, Honor the Earth and other intervenors plan to challenge the decision, as well as begin the long legal and regulatory proceedings challenging permits which would need to be obtained by Enbridge.

This month's deliberations were a painful example of a system of confusion. After five years of pipeline proposals, Commissioners were asking the Ojibwe to choose which route was the least detrimental. No Ojibwe band had come out in favor of a new pipeline; the choices being posed of running the pipe again across Leech Lake and Fond du Lac, or moving into Enbridge's preferred route.

"It's a lot like that moment in Sophie's Choice, where Meryl Streep is asked which child she will send to the gas chambers," quipped Frank Bibeau, Honor the Earth attorney. "The Ojibwe are being asked which lakes and watersheds they will sacrifice to Enbridge." The PUC deferred to Fond du Lac, which has been working on the cultural resources assessment to make this determination on the route.

As l00 degree temperatures mark the hottest year in history, and last year marked $600 billion in U.S. climate change-related disasters, the decision is a bad one for the climate.

Enbridge's Line 3 proposal is the equivalent in carbon impacts of bringing 50 new coal fired power plants on line. This is the only international tar sands pipeline project which has approval, since the Keystone XL pipeline has no route approval-making the Line 3 battle a ground zero in the battle over climate change.

Despite Minnesota's commitment to move to renewable energy, commissioners somehow felt that they had to approve the line. "It feels like it's a gun to our head," Commissioner Dan Lipschultz told the media, of the threat the old Line 3 posed.

Enbridge apparently was successful in convincing the PUC commissioners that they were holding a gun to their heads, in this case, the gun of a leaking pipeline system. Somehow, the perception that the state of Minnesota had no ability to remove a gun from a Canadian corporation's hand is disturbing to many Minnesotans, who thought state regulatory authority would protect remaining Minnesota waters from contamination. Others noted that responsible corporate citizens do not operate leaky pipelines.


"It's a lot like having a spoiled child who tells you they will keep making a huge mess unless you give them a clean room and an ice cream," one intervenor said. "In this case the PUC did just that, instead of acting like a parent, and trustee to the state, they gave the spoiled corporation a new corridor to pour oil into, and a pass on climate change."

After the vote, Gov. Mark Dayton urged people to express themselves peacefully and said the PUC decision "only allows Enbridge to begin to apply for a least 29 required federal, state and local permits ... construction cannot and will not begin unless Enbridge receives all required permit approvals." Those approvals by agencies like the Minnesota DNR and Pollution Control Agency could never occur; and legal challenges are pending.

Enbridge however, hopes to begin construction this fall or spring, with a completion by the end of 2019. That is a long way out, but in any case, it looks to be a bitter winter in Minnesota and for the Ojibwe. In the end, this may yet be Enbridge's most expensive pipeline project never built.

(Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation. She has written six books on environmental and native issues and is executive director of Honor the Earth, a national Native American environmental foundation)

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