Minnesota agencies on Thursday granted environmental permits for Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline across northern Minnesota, critical approvals needed for construction to begin soon on the controversial $2.6 billion project.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) approved permits dealing with water quality and wetland issues arising from construction of the 340-mile pipeline. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) granted several permits as well.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still must grant its own environmental permit — but Enbridge expects the OK soon. A union official said Thursday he anticipates Enbridge will begin construction next month.
The new pipeline, a replacement for the company’s deteriorating Line 3, would transport heavy Canadian oil to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wis. It has been navigating the Minnesota regulatory process for six years.
“The MPCA has used sound science and thorough analysis to ensure that the necessary safeguards are in place to protect Minnesota’s waters,” MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said in a statement.
The MPCA said it issued its “most stringent” water quality permit ever for the Line 3 project. Enbridge must do “extensive” mitigation of streams and wetlands that it disturbs, the agency said.
The pipeline would cross 212 streams and affect more than 700 acres of wetlands in Minnesota — the reason many environmental groups have fought the project throughout the regulatory process.
“Clearly, [the environmental] community is deeply disappointed that our lead environmental protection agency … would permit a project without using the tools it has to fully review [the pipeline’s] dramatic climate and environmental justice impacts,” said Steve Morse, head of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
The pipeline would be one of the largest construction projects in Minnesota in recent years, employing over 4,000 workers at its peak.
“It’s a huge day for us because it means this project has cleared Minnesota’s rigorous environmental standards,” said Kevin Pranis, Minnesota marketing manager for the Laborers Union.
Though Enbridge declined to provide an estimated start date, Pranis said the union has “every expectation” pipeline work will begin in December. Pranis said Enbridge is likely to build three sections of Line 3 concurrently.
Still, the pipeline project faces court challenges already, and may face more after the MPCA’s decision.
The MPCA’s permit — and a parallel water quality permit from the Army Corps — are the most significant approvals Calgary-based Enbridge needs for the project.
The Corps has completed most of its work and a permit decision is expected “as soon as possible,” said Craig Jarnot, Bemidji-based North Branch chief of the Army Corps’ regulatory division.
Vern Yu, Enbridge’s executive vice president for liquid pipelines, told stock analysts last Friday that the company expects to get the Army Corps permit “relatively quickly.” The corps’ permit deals with dredging and filling during construction.
Enbridge has said the new pipeline is a critical safety enhancement. The current Line 3 is so corroded it’s running at only half capacity. The new pipeline would restore full oil flow.
Environmental groups and some Indian bands have said the pipeline — which follows a new route — would open a new region of pristine waters to the prospect of oil spills, as well as exacerbate climate change by allowing for more oil production.
The MPCA said Thursday that it has set 34 specific conditions for Enbridge. Those include a prohibition on construction in or near wild rice waters from April 1 to July 15; and the hiring of 24 independent construction monitors who will report to the MPCA.
The agency released its draft water quality permits for Line 3 in February, but they were challenged by three environmental groups and two Ojibwe bands. An administrative law judge ruled in MPCA’s favor last month.
Groups challenging the permits were Friends of the Headwaters, Honor the Earth, the Sierra Club and the Red Lake and White Earth Ojibwe bands.
The judge, James LaFave, only ruled on the specific issues in front of him but noted that other concerns raised by the groups were important.
The groups had argued, among other things, that the MPCA should have reviewed whether the new Line 3 would violate tribal treaty rights and exacerbate climate change, the environmental groups and two tribes argued.
“While [Gov. Tim Walz] talks about climate change and environmental justice, this [MPCA] decision shows he lacks commitment to either,” said Winona LaDuke, head of Minnesota-based Honor the Earth, an Indigenous environmental group.
The MPCA’s Bishop told reporters Thursday that she “shared the urgency to address climate change,” but that the topic was out of the MPCA’s purview for Line 3. In this case, “the MPCA can only use its … authority to regulate water quality,” she said.
Climate change was one of many issues reviewed by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the state’s primary pipeline regulator. But when the PUC ultimately approved the project, it focused mostly on how potential oil spills might affect the environment and the current pipeline’s poor condition.
In August, the Minnesota Department of Commerce department appealed the PUC’s approval of Line 3 to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The department claims Enbridge’s long-term oil demand forecast is overstated, and that the PUC committed a “legal error” when evaluating it.
Environmental and tribal groups also have filed appeals over the PUC’s February approval.
Enbridge would begin construction in an economy and time dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Pranis, of the Laborers union, said Line 3 would offset a downturn in construction caused by the pandemic. “We expect the coming year to be really difficult for construction, possibly as bad as the Great Recession.”
Enbridge said it will use COVID-19 screening programs for workers in Minnesota that “proved effective” this year during construction of a short stretch of Line 3 in North Dakota.
But some fear possible outbreaks stemming from so many workers along the corridor.
Earlier this week, White Earth Nation Chairman Michael Fairbanks wrote Bishop asking that the MPCA suspend its regulatory process in light of the pandemic.
White Earth is concerned about “a superspreader event over a long winter where thousands of out-of-state people; pipeline workers; and their armed security forces, environmental protectors and law enforcement — all come and hang out in the cold, and then hang out indoors at our public places in rural northern Minnesota,” he wrote.
Large protests against Line 3 also may be in the offing. “We will be there,” LaDuke said. “It’s going to be a brutal winter.