Plans by a Canadian energy company to replace an aging oil pipeline in northern Minnesota with a new one are sowing a divide between key factions of the DFL as the party gears up for important elections next year.

Enbridge hopes to construct a 340-mile pipeline to deliver Canadian oil from northwestern Minnesota to a terminal on Lake Superior. As the Minnesota Department of Commerce pushes back against those plans, DFL lawmakers from the area and their allies in building trades unions who support the project are engaged in a sometimes bitter conflict with environmentalists and American Indians who don’t.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, cast the debate in stark terms by pointing out that the number of DFL senators from rural districts dropped from 21 in 2009 to seven this year.

“I don’t think things are going to change unless party officials realize people who live in regions like mine should make decisions about what goes on here,” said Tomassoni, who supports the project. Estimates have the project creating 6,500 jobs over two years in a part of the state that has often lagged economically.

Enbridge opponents say advocates for the pipeline are living in the past.

“We had meatpacking plants in my district, and they voted DFL their whole life,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul. “But they passed away and there are new voters who weren’t there when the stockyards were there. I represent them, not the memory of someone else.”

The divide is not new. It reflects long-standing differences between two of the DFL’s most important constituencies: environmentalists who want to protect the state’s vast network of waterways, and the building trades unions that want the thousands of high-paying jobs that come from major infrastructure projects such as the Enbridge pipeline.

Complicating the situation further is the contention by Indians in that part of the state who say wild rice waters would be put at unacceptable risk if the new pipeline is realized.

The line is expected to mean more than $2 billion in investment in rural Minnesota.

The stakes of the ongoing conflict are high: Republicans who uniformly support the pipeline see a chance to leverage the divisions against the DFL ahead of next year’s pivotal governor’s race. Whoever wins will participate in legislative and congressional redistricting after the 2020 census, with the potential to shape Minnesota politics for the next decade.

Republicans see an opportunity to peel off still more rural votes with the Enbridge issue: House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, a potential candidate for governor, wrote an Op-Ed column in the Duluth News Tribune last week in favor of the project on the same day he appeared at a hearing with Tomassoni in Grand Rapids to support the pipeline.

No one is more aware of the hazards of an intraparty fight than Ken Martin, the DFL chairman, whose career in politics began in the building trades but who is also close to deep-pocketed Twin Cities environmentalists who have been a major source of campaign funds for the party.

“I constantly remind folks who are passionate about these issues that there’s more to being a Democrat than one issue,” Martin said. “We’ve got to save the fight for the Republicans.”

Not everyone abides by Martin’s advice.

Glen Johnson, business manager of Local 49 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents heavy-equipment operators, said opponents are “hypocrites” because they use carbon-based fuel for their cars and to heat their homes. Opponents of the line should “buy an ax and start chopping wood,” he said.

Polarizing issues

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said pipeline advocates have the wrong priorities: “Maximizing profits for Enbridge is never going to be my public policy perspective,” she said.

Johnson, Becker-Finn and others in the tussle said they expect the DFL to move beyond the Enbridge debate and unite around common issues in the 2018 election.

But the fight will bleed into next year.

The Commerce Department issued an analysis in September that said the pipeline isn’t needed and the current line should be shut down.

Enbridge rebutted the analysis last week, saying the replacement line would not only provide a needed safety upgrade from the current 1960s-vintage pipeline but also more than double the current flow to 844,000 barrels and thereby meet the needs of customers.

Opponents object to the proposed 340-mile path through Minnesota, which would diverge from its existing route, traveling near the Mississippi River headwaters and through areas known for pristine waters and wild rice lakes.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide the fate of the pipeline in April.

The conflict’s players and cultural milieu mirror another dispute in northern Minnesota, between advocates of copper-nickel mining and environmentalists. That spilled into the open again last week with the publication of a New York Times Magazine article on the ongoing fight. Reid Carron, a clean water advocate who lives in Ely, is quoted disparaging mining advocates: “They want somebody to just give them a job so they can all drink beer with their buddies and go four-wheeling and snowmobiling with their buddies, not have to think about anything except punching a clock.”

In the 2018 governor’s race, the Enbridge issue doesn’t just divide the DFL, it divides a leading DFL ticket: U.S. Rep. Tim Walz is close to the building trades unions and has said the line should be built if it can be done safely while protecting Indian treaty lands and rights. (When the Ojibwe ceded lands to the United States in the 19th century, the band retained hunting, gathering and fishing rights.) Walz’s running mate, Rep. Peggy Flanagan, who if elected would be the state’s first American Indian elected to statewide office, has been a staunch opponent of the project as now conceived.

Hansen said the party must adapt and change and embrace new voters, especially in the suburbs, if it is to recover from its doldrums. But he acknowledged doing so will be hard: “Nostalgia,” he said, “is a powerful drug.”