PARK RAPIDS, MINN. – Leon Rogers has lived next to crude oil pipelines for years. He's had enough.
With four pipelines already buried beneath his farmland and a fifth one planned next to his house, Rogers and many of his neighbors are no longer ambivalent about the river of oil flowing through this region of forests, lakes and rivers.
"They are making it a freeway for pipelines," said Rogers, a registered nurse who has lived on a small farm south of Park Rapids for 18 years. "It comes down to, 'I don't want to live here.' "
Anti-pipeline sentiment is spreading in Minnesota's North Woods, where 14 percent of the nation's oil supply already flows through 10 cross-state pipelines leading to Superior, Wis., and the Twin Cities. It's happening amid persistent environmental opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta, Canada, through western U.S. states, and to a proposed copper-nickel mine near Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
For years, pipeline companies like Enbridge Energy, based in Calgary, Alberta, have faced not-on-my-property opposition over new pipelines carrying Canadian and U.S. oil. Now, residents like Rogers and a new citizen group are asking: Should the Mississippi River headwaters be a major conduit for crude oil?
Enbridge is proposing to build the 610-mile, $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline across North Dakota and Minnesota to transport oil from the Bakken region to Superior. Part of the route passes Itasca State Park on a corridor that already has four crude oil pipelines owned by another company.
"This one has caught everyone's attention," said Willis Mattison, a former regional administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who is advising a newly formed group called Friends of the Headwaters, which has challenged the project.
Two month after it formed, the Park Rapids-based group says hundreds of people have expressed support. In a sign of the anti-pipeline sentiment, a crowd of 130 people at a public meeting in Park Rapids Wednesday applauded everyone who spoke against the project. The lone supporter, a local bus driver, made his remarks to polite silence.
The following night, in Carlton, Minn., an even larger crowd showed up at a meeting held by state agencies and Enbridge. "Where did all these people come from?" said Steve Schulstrom, an organic farmer who helped form the Carlton County Land Stewards to protect organic and sustainable farms in the pipeline's path. He said about 180 people showed up. "It amazed me."
State agencies led by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission have just launched their review of the line, a process expected to take 10 months. Enbridge recently said it plans to build another $2.6 billion pipeline across Minnesota, replacing an older one that's prone to leaks. The route hasn't been announced, but Enbridge said it will consider using the same path as the Sandpiper line.
"We are the headwaters for the Mississippi River, one of the world's great rivers, and within 25 miles of Park Rapids are over 400 lakes, some of them the clearest in the state," said Richard Smith, a photographer who serves on the Friends of the Headwaters steering committee.
In a uniquely North Woods problem, Smith said many summer-only residents likely don't know about the Sandpiper pipeline, and deserve a say on the route before regulators act. Enbridge announced the proposed route in November, after many seasonal residents had left. Yet the deadline for objections is early April, before many return.
Although the Hubbard County Board and other groups have pressed for more time, the PUC says that's not possible because state law requires a decision 12 months after the project's application. Indeed, activists like Smith and Mattison said the state's fast-paced review process may make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to halt the Sandpiper line or have much influence over its route.
That's a big difference with the better-known battle over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil through western states. Keystone XL needs a presidential permit to cross the international border, and unless President Obama approves the project, it may not be built.
But Sandpiper, whose route is entirely in the United States, doesn't need such a permit. It also doesn't require a full-blown environmental impact statement, like Keystone XL and the proposed PolyMet Mining copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. Instead, a consultant will conduct a streamlined environmental review of the Sandpiper route.
Mattison said the pushback against Minnesota oil pipelines has been influenced by the high-profile Keystone XL debate and the resurgence of environmental activism in Minnesota over what would be the state's first copper mine.
"People are making a difference with Keystone. People are making a difference with PolyMet," Mattison said. "Maybe we can make a difference with the pipeline."
Enbridge, whose executives attended meetings across northern Minnesota hosted by state regulators, said the 30-inch-diameter pipeline will be built to high standards, with extra-thick steel where it crosses the Mississippi River and other waterways like the Straight River, a trout stream. It will mean 1,500 temporary jobs during the 2015-2016 construction period, and an economic jolt to local economies.
"We are offsetting [oil] imports from other countries that are unstable or are unfriendly to U.S. interests," said Barry Simonson, a Duluth-based manager of engineering and construction for Enbridge.
Many pipeline critics in northern Minnesota don't oppose all pipelines, but have begun to question their concentration in the region. Enbridge's safety record often gets mentioned, especially the 2010 rupture in Marshall, Mich., whose release of 840,000 gallons of crude oil into waterways is projected to cost $1.1 billion to clean up. That's roughly the price tag of the Minnesota portion of the Sandpiper line.
Enbridge has told regulators that building Sandpiper "will cause a significant reduction in rail shipments of light crude oil." North Dakota now ships most of its crude oil by rail, but the practice is facing scrutiny because of disastrous accidents and disclosures that oil trains routinely pass through urban areas, including the Twin Cities.
Dewane Morgan, a semiretired farmer south of Park Rapids, said he witnessed a near-disaster with pipelines last May when a forest fire swept though 7,000 nearby acres, destroying several of his neighbors' homes and threatening a pumping station for pipelines that ship crude oil to Twin Cities oil refineries.
Amid thick smoke, he said, firefighting aircraft repeatedly doused the pumping station with water. "It looked like the close-air support we received in Vietnam," said Morgan, who served in the Marines. "It was very intense, but they kept this pumping station from igniting. That would have been a disaster."
When Morgan first moved to the area in 1972, he added, the pipeline corridor carried one buried pipe, and looked like a deer trail in the woods. Today, the pipeline corridor is as wide as a two-lane road, and Enbridge proposes to add another 50 feet in width.
That's what bothers Leon Rogers. If Enbridge expands as planned, Rogers said, every tree between his house and the pipeline corridor would be bulldozed.
Rogers said an Enbridge official who stopped by recently about acquiring a permanent easement was so confident that state regulators would approve the proposed route that he "was willing to write a check on the spot."
But Rogers said he didn't take the money, and still hasn't decided what to do.