CLEARBROOK, MINN. - Minnesota, a land of no oil wells, is quietly emerging as a major gateway for the oil bounty flowing from North Dakota and Canada.
Pipelines that can carry 14 percent of the petroleum used in United States converge on this little-known town in northwest Minnesota, population 521. The oil distribution terminal here, built in 1950 and repeatedly expanded over six decades, is now a key distribution point that feeds refineries in the Twin Cities, Superior Wis., Chicago and beyond.
"It is an increasingly busy hub, even more so in the last few years," said Denise Hamsher, director of major project planning for Enbridge Energy, which owns the terminal and most of the pipelines in and out.
Even more oil is on the way to Clearbrook, setting off a sometimes contentious scramble to expand pipelines and pumping stations in the region.
Most of the new oil will feed the 1,900-mile Lakehead System owned by Enbridge, which is investing $9 billion to upgrade capacity from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast. Two Twin Cities refineries with direct pipelines from Clearbrook also stand to gain from the new crude.
As the river of oil flows into the area, it's mostly unseen and largely forgotten, though not by people like Ken and Bonnie Oraskovich, whose ranch is a half-mile from the Clearbrook terminal. Their herd of black, Angus-mix cattle grazes lazily on fields that hide nine buried pipelines.
"It's amazing," said Ken Oraskovich, who isn't opposed to the pipes but knows they can carry risks. "When people are driving down the highway, there is crude oil underneath them."
North Dakota, now the nation's No. 2 oil-producing state, has piped oil into Clearbrook since 1962. But the shale oil boom driven by new drilling methods has overwhelmed existing pipelines, even after recent upgrades. Two more lines from North Dakota are proposed into Clearbrook.
Yet most of the oil flowing into this Minnesota outpost comes from Canada, including heavy tar-like crude from the oil sands region of Alberta. Enbridge, based in Calgary, Alberta, has six oil pipelines that cross the international border headed to Clearbrook.
Such projects have been a tax boon to the sparsely populated region, the seventh-poorest county in the state. The immense oil storage tanks at Clearbrook and connecting pipelines make up 25 percent of Clearwater County's property tax base. Enbridge's assets in the county more than doubled in value to $175 million since 2010, according to County Assessor Cheryl Grover.
"It's an asset," said Brad Eck, CEO of the First State Bank in Clearwater. "Without it, it would be tough to keep up the infrastructure."
Oil portal - and chokepoint
While Clearbrook is a major portal for oil, it's recently become a chokepoint.
Oil producers and shippers can't get enough crude to the terminal. In a recent regulatory filing, Enbridge said that demand to ship oil to Clearbrook via its North Dakota pipeline is many times greater than its capacity. Many producers have turned to more-expensive railroad shipping.
Enbridge has considered building a second oil pipeline across North Dakota. A competitor, High Prairie Pipeline, also is planning an oil pipeline across that state. It would connect to the Clearbrook tank farm, and the company has complained that Enbridge won't allow the tie-in on reasonable terms.
In a legal battle playing out before several federal agencies including the U.S. State Department, High Prairie has accused Enbridge -- a Canadian company -- of discriminating against North Dakota oil in favor of Canada's oil. Enbridge denies the charge.
Much of Enbridge's Lakehead System is designed to transport Canadian oil. That country's oil exports are up 23 over the past five years and are expected to more then double by 2035. The lines from Canada, like the one in North Dakota, also are filling up, Enbridge says.
If High Prairie's new North Dakota line simply connects into Clearbrook, "it's pumping into a brick wall," said Enbridge's Hamsher. "We can't just let anybody jump on our system. That hurts other shippers."
Instead, Enbridge says it will need to add a pipeline from Clearbrook to Superior to transport more oil eastward. A key issue in the dispute with High Prairie is how much North Dakota shippers would share in that cost.
No economic powerhouse
Unlike the North Dakota oil rush and its jobs bonanza, a similar boom hasn't hit Clearbrook.
Oil terminals are imposing places, but they usually are not labor intensive. Enbridge employs 15 workers on site and brings in more when needed. While pipelines need people to service them, the work often is far from home.
Still, on the city's main street, North Country Hardware store owner Shawn Johnson said the terminal probably drives at least 30 percent of the local economy.
"I don't think I would be here without them," he said. "I don't think it would be worth my time."
Minnesota's role in bringing oil to market has largely flown under the radar. When Enbridge built its "Alberta Clipper" pipeline to carry Canadian crude into Minnesota, it won approval from the Obama administration in 2009 with no fanfare.
By contrast, protests erupted at the White House last year over the Keystone XL pipeline proposed by another company from Canada through Nebraska to Texas. The administration rejected that project in January, though a new route in Nebraska may yet gain approval.
Environmental groups have opposed Enbridge's Minnesota expansions, but less openly -- in court and before regulatory agencies.
"We pretty much lost every battle," said Kevin Reuther, legal director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a St. Paul nonprofit that fought the Alberta Clipper and another pipeline.
After that defeat, Reuther said, activists shifted strategy for Nebraska, turning to grass-roots organizing and street protests against Keystone XL. Their arguments were mostly the same -- that tar sands oil causes too much environmental damage and greenhouse gas.
"Keystone XL pipeline is getting all the press and attention for this tar sands oil," said Greg Ward, vice president and general counsel for the High Prairie Pipeline in North Dakota. "But Enbridge is, behind the scenes, expanding its system to accommodate this same crude oil."
In Clearbrook, rancher Oraskovich, who also works as a bank officer, said Enbridge's pipeline expansions haven't drawn attention mainly because they follow pipeline rights of way that have existed for decades.
Some farmers, including himself, have gripes about pipeline digging, crop damage and land restoration, but "there has been nothing antipipeline at all" in the region, he said.
In 2007, a pipeline fire killed two Enbridge workers just outside of Clearbrook, and the company eventually paid a $2.4 million fine. Oraskovich, then a volunteer firefighter, was among the first on the scene and watched flames spew oily, black smoke for hours.
"You could do nothing, it was so hot," Oraskovich said. Yet it didn't provoke a local backlash, in part because Enbridge apologized, cleaned up soot-damaged homes and relocated one family, he added.
Enbridge now faces more federal scrutiny over pipeline safety. In July, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a highly critical report on Enbridge's July 2010 pipeline rupture near Marshall, Mich., which spilled 840,000 gallons of crude oil into two waterways.
While many people have never heard of Clearbrook, the oil industry watches what happens there. Since 2010, Clearbrook terminal's crude oil prices been tracked daily by Bloomberg, the investment data service, and delivered to the computer screens of oil traders around the world.
"It is well documented that the Bakken formation and the Williston Basin are a game changer in the oil industry," said High Prairie's Ward. "The significance of Clearbrook is that it is really fast becoming a market hub for that crude oil."
David Shaffer • 612-673-7090