Oil pipeline operator Enbridge is often at odds with Indian tribes over new pipelines — but not with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, at least in one key respect.
In Minnesota regulatory filings Wednesday, both parties blasted a report recommending that Enbridge's proposed new Line 3 pipeline be built on its current route, which crosses the Leech Lake reservation.
Administrative Law Judge Ann O'Reilly last month issued a report concluding that Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge needs a new oil pipeline to replace its aging and corroding Line 3.
But O'Reilly rejected Enbridge's proposed new route for Line 3. Instead, she concluded the pipeline's benefits would outweigh its costs only if old Line 3 was extracted and a new one built on the current route. O'Reilly acknowledged Leech Lake's opposition, but seemed to believe some sort of agreement could be worked out.
Leech Lake's filing said that notion is simply "wrong," and that O'Reilly's report "flatly ignores the band's status as a sovereign government," the filing said. "The band has consistently, and for multiple years, stated that it will not approve the Line 3 replacement pipeline across its reservation."
Wednesday was the deadline for filing responses to O'Reilly's report, a comprehensive review of thousands of pages of documents and comments from dozens of public and administrative hearings. The report is not binding; it offers recommendations instead.
The fate of Line 3, which has been winding through the regulatory process for over three years, is expected to be decided in June by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Environmental groups and several Indian tribes, including Leech Lake, have opposed the need for any new oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
In its filing Wednesday, Enbridge said it "appreciates" O'Reilly's recognition that the current Line 3 needs to be replaced.
"The balance of (her) report, however, misapplies governing Minnesota and federal law and ignores or misstates significant and important facts," the filing said.
Enbridge also wrote that O'Reilly has "a basic misunderstanding of key aspects of the crude oil industry."
Administrative law judges are appointed to contested cases before the PUC, and their reports often carry significant weight. Line 3 has been about as contested as possible, pitting Enbridge, oil shippers and construction workers — who stand to gain more than 4,000 jobs — against environmental groups and Indian tribes.
The current Line 3 is one of six Enbridge pipelines that transport Canadian oil to Clearbrook, Minn., and then on through Bemidji and Grand Rapids to Superior, Wis. Enbridge's new Line 3 would follow the current pipeline corridor to Clearbrook, but would then jog south to Park Rapids before heading east to the company's big terminal in Superior.
Opponents argue that Enbridge's new route would open up a new region of lakes, rivers and wild rice waters to environmental degradation from possible oil spills. O'Reilly essentially concluded that such environmental risks outweigh the benefits of Enbridge's proposed new route.
In Wednesday's filing, Enbridge said that O'Reilly's route recommendation poses "significant threats to humans and the environment."
Extracting the old pipeline and dropping a new one in its place — amid five other surrounding pipelines — is a complicated task that poses a safety risk, the company wrote.
It also would add about $1.3 billion in costs to a project with a price tag already projected to be $2.6 billion, and require Enbridge to shut down current Line 3 while the new one is being built.
Enbridge noted the Leech Lake band's opposition, too, and Leech Lake agreed with Enbridge that a so-called "in-trench" replacement of Line 3 is a "bad idea from both a safety and environmental perspective."
The Enbridge pipeline corridor in Minnesota also passes through the reservation of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Enbridge's new Line 3 route wouldn't cross any reservations, though it would pass through territory ceded by the tribes in 19th century treaties. The tribes claim hunting, fishing and gathering rights on those treaty lands.
In filings Wednesday, Fond du Lac and two other Indian bands criticized O'Reilly's report for questioning some of those treaty rights.
"The ceded territories are where we exercise our rights to gather food in much the same way we always have," the Fond du Lac tribe said in a statement. "In this respect, the ceded territories are still considered tribal lands."