Minnesota is now ground zero in the pipeline wars. While the country focused on the Keystone XL Pipeline and its potential impacts on Nebraska’s groundwater, a different Canadian company named Enbridge proposed two new pipelines in Minnesota. These pipelines would slash through the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which provides most of the Twin Cities’ drinking water, as well as a region filled with pristine lakes, including many wild-rice lakes.
The first new line proposed is the Sandpiper Pipeline. It’s one link in a scheme to move oil from North Dakota to Illinois and points south. The second pipeline is a replacement for an old pipeline called “Line 3,” which would move heavy Canadian crude oil of the type that ruptured and created a billion-dollar disaster in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010.
Conventional wisdom often assumes that all proposed pipelines are necessary. Surprisingly, some of Enbridge’s own customers oppose Sandpiper. In a March 2014 protest filed at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, four of them explained why most oil shippers don’t want Sandpiper. They claimed that only 15 of Enbridge’s 185 shippers even asked for information about buying capacity on Sandpiper and that “virtually every governmental study shows that current pipeline and rail facilities are more than sufficient for the foreseeable future to transport Bakken crude oil production from North Dakota.” To back up their claims, they showed that by the end of 2015 shipping capacity from North Dakota will be 2.2 million barrels per day — without Sandpiper — far more than that state’s peak forecast of about 1.5 million barrels per day in 2026. You can download this document at www.friendsoftheheadwaters.org.
The St. Paul Park Refinery also filed a protest saying that it does not believe Sandpiper is necessary or desirable to meet its transportation needs. In fact, Minnesotans don’t need more oil. Federal statistics show that we reduced our use of petroleum fuels by 19.8 percent between 2004 and 2013.
Many people think that building pipelines will get oil off the rails and avoid explosions such as the one last year in Lac Megantic, Quebec, where a train derailed and killed 47 people. Unfortunately, building a pipeline across Minnesota is not likely to stop oil by rail. Most of the oil trains rolling through Minnesota go to East Coast refineries, because these refineries are designed for the kind of oil that comes from North Dakota. Yet, no pipelines currently go anywhere near these refineries, and none are planned. Instead, they are served only by rail or ships.
The Sandpiper Pipeline would be risky. Both the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have urged the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to find a route like SA-04, south of the Headwaters and lake country. These agencies are very concerned about the threat of spills, especially because many parts of Enbridge’s route cut through wetlands and areas far from roads, making response to ruptures very difficult.
Unfortunately, the Minnesota Department of Commerce has ignored environmental concerns and is arguing that the PUC must put this new pipeline through northern Minnesota, because Enbridge says so.
If Enbridge’s own customers are speaking out against Sandpiper, so should we. If both the PCA and DNR vote thumbs-down on its route, so should we. Friends of the Headwaters has taken on the complex and expensive task of challenging Enbridge at the PUC, but we need help from other concerned citizens.
The PUC has a choice. It can focus only on Enbridge and its economic interests or it can use our government’s muscle to protect Minnesotans. On Thursday, it will vote about whether to even consider a route outside of northern Minnesota. We urge Minnesotans to join us and speak up for safe drinking water, the Mississippi headwaters and Minnesota lake country.
Eileen Shore is a retired attorney living in Minneapolis who has worked on pipeline issues for the Montana Public Service Commission. She is a volunteer for the nonprofit Friends of the Headwaters.