Even as the U.S. oil industry slashes investment, pipeline operator Enbridge Energy isn't paring back its record five-year, $44 billion building program that includes major projects in Minnesota, the company's CEO Al Monaco said Friday.
Monaco said in an interview that the 50 percent drop in crude oil prices since June "is very dire" for the industry, but hasn't changed the economics of pipelines like Enbridge's proposed Sandpiper project to deliver North Dakota oil across northern Minnesota to a terminal and other pipelines in Superior, Wis.
"The amount of production that is coming on to our system and the amount of production we forecast from the oil sands or the Bakken is actually well in excess of the capacity we have on our system," said Monaco, whose company operates the world's longest crude oil pipeline system and has major operations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Monaco told the Star Tribune that he sees no significant change in the company's investment plan, which is focused on liquid pipelines. Most projects, he said, are secured with contracts or are already underway. The share in Minnesota is $5 billion, he added.
Yet Monaco said Enbridge has no plans to build additional pipeline projects in Minnesota beyond the three now in planning or construction, which also include the nearly finished upgrade of the 1,000-mile Alberta clipper crude oil line from Canada to Superior and the proposed replacement of Line 3, an older pipeline from Canada that operates at half capacity to reduce the risk of further ruptures.
The Sandpiper project is a proposed 600-mile oil pipeline that would go through Clearbrook, Minn., skirt Park Rapids and then run east to Superior. State environmental agencies have suggested building it on a longer, alternate route, avoiding much of northern Minnesota's lakes region. The Line 3 replacement would follow the same route. Both projects are undergoing state regulatory review.
Monaco said Enbridge's proposed path is a better route that avoids populated areas and follows existing pipelines and transmission lines. When asked whether Enbridge would abandon the Sandpiper project if the state Public Utilities Commission orders it built on a different route, Monaco said he didn't want to speculate.
"I prefer to wait and see," said Monaco. "I really can't say what we would do if that is the case."
Although Enbridge is mainly known as a pipeline company, it also has major investments in renewable energy, including solar and wind power, mostly in Canada. The company also has a "neutral footprint" policy of offsetting with renewable energy all of the electricity used in its operations.
"One thing we would really like to do in the renewables business is focus on Minnesota," Monaco said. "We know there are great resources here and we think we have good capacity to make this happen."
Monaco didn't offer specifics, and said he didn't know if any solar developers had approached the Enbridge to participate in any of the more than 400 community solar projects recently proposed in Xcel Energy's Minnesota territory. But he said "we'd love to work with local players" on renewable energy development.
Monaco, who is based at the company's Calgary headquarters, visited Minnesota this week to meet with people in business, the community and labor unions. Enbridge expects that 3,000 workers will be employed in building Minnesota pipeline projects.
His message was focused mostly on safety and environmental protection, and less on economic and tax benefits of pipelines.
He said the firm has invested $4 billion in pipeline safety since the 2010 rupture of an Enbridge pipeline in Marshall, Mich., that spilled 1.1 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River and cost more than $1 billion to clean up. Federal investigators later reported that the spill went undetected by Enbridge control center employees for 17 hours.
"Before that, most people in the industry would have said Enbridge is the top-notch player in this business," Monaco said. "People used to come to us for advice on control center operations or integrity management. But obviously when that happened, it was a petty big wake up call. We thought we were good, but obviously we weren't good enough."
Afterward, Enbridge took an array of steps, including retraining workers, building "a world-class control center" and making the company's operations and integrity committee led by Monaco "the most important" in the company, he added. "I will guarantee you that is the largest program in the history of North American pipelines," he said.
Monaco said the company understands that it must convince Minnesotans its pipelines are safe. "The thing that comes first, in terms of building trust with communities, is making sure that we're really focused on safety and environmental protection," Monaco added. "The communities and the regulators want to see a top-notch system … This isn't about meeting regulatory standards and the minimums."
David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 Twitter: @ShafferStrib