BRAINERD - A large crowd filled the cafeteria at Central Lakes College Thursday night to share views on a proposed oil pipeline replacement project.
Several of the commenters voiced concerns with Canadian energy company Enbridge's plans to decommission its aging Line 3 without removing it, addressed the environmental impacts of potential spills and questioned the conflicting interests of contractors associated with the environmental review.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce hosted the public meeting to accept comments on its draft environmental impact statement, prepared to evaluate Enbridge's proposed Line 3 replacement. The meeting was one of nearly two dozen meetings scheduled throughout the state in communities near the potential pipeline route during the public comment period, which runs through July 10.
Based on comments received, the DOC will prepare a final draft of the EIS and present its findings to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is responsible for determining whether the need for the project exists and, if so, the route the company may use to build the pipeline.
The proposed route for the Line 3 replacement pipeline, which would transport diluted bitumen known as tar sands oil, traverses 1,031 miles, from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wis. Although most of the route follows along the current path of Line 3, Enbridge wants the replacement pipeline to forge a new path south from Clearbrook and east across Hubbard, Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing, Aitkin, Carlton and Douglas counties.
The company's preferred route is the same as the one proposed for the Sandpiper oil pipeline, which was deferred in September. Seven miles of the route dip south across the Cass-Crow Wing county line, before continuing eastward through Cass.
Public weighs in
Conflict resolution professional Patrick Field moderated the comment period, which allotted five minutes for each member of the public who wished to speak. A court reporter recorded the comments for the official record.
Charles Krysel of Backus said if the pipeline was to be replaced, he believed it could be done along the route it currently runs.
"I think it's technologically possible," Krysel said. "Surely it must be. It should be done. ... A new route would only add impact and sacrifice to a new area."
As part of its replacement plan, Enbridge intends to decommission the current Line 3 without removing it, but says it will monitor the pipeline for life.
"Will Enbridge exist in five years?" Krysel said. "There's no guarantee."
Richard Smith, leader of advocacy group Friends of the Headwaters, questioned the veracity of an assessment of Enbridge's track record concerning spills contained within the draft EIS. The report was prepared for the DOC by Stantec Consulting Services, which Smith pointed out has a previous working history with Enbridge.
Smith said his group is not anti-pipeline, but is instead concerned with the potential impacts of a new pipeline on the water resources of central Minnesota. He held up a chunk of asphalt, which he said was like a hardened version of the tar sands oil Enbridge would move through Line 3.
"Imaging trying to get this through a pipe," Smith said. "A dilbit (diluted bitumen) pipeline should never be put through a water-rich environment."
Chuck Diessner, also with the Friends of the Headwaters, said he was naive when he first became involved with challenging Enbridge's pipelines. He said the DOC was not here to act in the best interest of the public.
"Their definition of best interest of the public is jobs," Diessner said. "They don't care that we sacrifice the environment. It's just jobs."
Diessner asked whether anyone in the room would rather see jobs if it meant sacrificing the environment. No one raised their hand.
Jerry Raedeke of Nisswa said building Line 3 through north-central Minnesota meant putting some of the "purest, best water in the United States" at risk.
"Water right now, and in the future, is going to be worth much more than oil," Raedeke said.
Raedeke said he understood union workers wanted the jobs associated with building a pipeline, but he said the potential damage to the area's tourism economy and Native American wild rice culture could have a far greater negative impact than the positive gained.
Allen Richardson with the group Minnesotans for Pipeline Cleanup questioned Enbridge's assertion removing the old pipeline would be too risky, given the distance between existing lines. Several pipelines run adjacent to one another through the existing corridor. Richardson said members of his group walked the lines and believed there was "ample room" to remove decommissioned lines. He said the group was advocating on behalf of landowners concerned with old, empty pipelines left on their properties.
"To my brothers and sisters in the labor movement, if you want to benefit from the jobs that would come from digging up an abandoned pipeline, assert solidarity with landowners that don't want to be stuck with abandoned pipelines on their land," Richardson said. "There are long-term economic benefits to be had to the pipeline workers who are definitely the ones who are qualified to do that work."
Representing a labor group was Kevin Miller, special pipeline representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 49. Miller said union workers had completed dozens of pipelines, and he was offended by the suggestion pipeline construction accompanied social problems.
"I've heard the most absurd stuff that, just roundabout kind of putting it, that a pipeline job of this magnitude may incite child sex slave trade and intense drug abuse of some nature," Miller said. "I was actually appalled."
Miller said "whatever went on in North Dakota," in reference to the Bakken oil fields, was not replicated along many other pipeline projects and workers with his union represented 4-5 percent of the workforce there.
Miller also took issue with several commenters using the term "abandoned" to describe what Enbridge wished to do with the current Line 3 pipeline, noting the company said it would take responsibility for the line for life.
"'Abandoned' means, throw to the curb," Miller said.
How to participate
Several meetings are scheduled in the state; visit https://mn.gov/commerce/energyfacilities/line3/ to see the list of all meetings and to view the EIS. Members of the public may comment by email, mail, fax or in person at the scheduled meetings.
Each meeting will begin with a one-hour open house, during which information stations with posters about specific topics in the draft EIS will be on display. Agency representatives will be available to discuss the draft EIS, and attendees will have the opportunity to provide individual oral comments or submit written comments on the draft EIS to a court reporter for the official record.
Following the open house will be a 10-minute presentation explaining the purpose of the EIS, the regulatory review process and the timeline for the Public Utilities Commission to make its final decision.
The remainder of the time will be an open comment period, providing an opportunity to speak and offer comments on the draft EIS for the official record.
An administrative law judge will oversee the meetings and will submit a report to the Public Utilities Commission with findings of fact, conclusions of law and recommendations. The commission will then decide whether Enbridge will be allowed to move forward with the project, and which route the new line should take if allowed.
A decision is expected in about a year.