Enbridge Energy is finalizing plans to build a 600-mile pipeline to transport North Dakota crude oil to Superior, Wis., and soon will begin contacting Minnesota property owners along two proposed paths across the state.

Although two proposed pathways across 11 northern counties are under review for the $2.5 billion Sandpiper Pipeline, an Enbridge official said Thursday that the company is leaning toward a route that runs through Clearbrook, Minn., sweeps around Park Rapids and then turns east.

The $2.5 billion project would employ as many as 3,000 workers in Minnesota and North Dakota during construction that could start in late 2014, said Christine Davis, a community relations consultant for Calgary-based Enbridge.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday authorized the company to send notices to property owners along two possible routes for the pipeline. The notices, expected to be mailed next month, will explain how property owners can make themselves heard as the commission considers the need for the pipeline and the route.

The 225,000-barrel-per-day buried pipeline will carry away roughly 20 percent of the Bakken field's crude oil production when it's completed in early 2016. The pipeline section between Enbridge's oil terminals at Clearbrook and Superior would have 50 percent greater capacity than the North Dakota section, allowing more crude oil to flow eastward from the Clearbrook terminal.

"Right now there is a bottleneck out of North Dakota," Davis said in an interview.

Enbridge officials said the company plans to build a separate oil terminal with tanks at Clearbrook for the Sandpiper-transported oil. The existing Clearbrook terminal, with seven incoming petroleum pipelines from Canada and North Dakota, is already a waypoint for about 14 percent of the nation's oil supply.

The route of the Sandpiper line has implications for many property owners in 11 northern Minnesota counties. If the PUC approves the project, Enbridge could seek easements through negotiation or condemnation for a path, typically 50 feet wide, to bury the line.

All of Enbridge's existing cross-state pipelines go through Bemidji and Cass Lake in a fairly direct route to Superior. But Davis said the company is leaning toward a longer, more southerly route for Sandpiper that would avoid those cities and parallel another pipeline and parts of electrical transmission lines and railroad tracks for 302 miles to Wisconsin.

Even so, property owners near both possible Minnesota routes will get notices about the project. Enbridge plans to announce its recommended route in September when it submits a detailed plan to state regulators.

In July, the PUC approved a $40 million upgrade to boost capacity on an existing cross-state Enbridge pipeline. Environmental activists still are campaigning against that project because it carries heavy Canadian tar-sands oil that they fear will increase greenhouse gases linked to global warming. That project, unlike Sandpiper, requires presidential approval because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border.

Will project be opposed?

North Dakota produces light crude oil, and it is unclear whether the anti-tar-sands activists led by MN350.org will mount a similar campaign against the Sandpiper project. Tom McSteen, an organizer for the group, said it has been talking to Minnesota property owners about both pipelines, but has not yet decided whether to fight Sandpiper.

"We are connecting to the communities and we will listen to them," he said.

Union leaders said they strongly support the project.

"It is a big-time employer for us — pipelines feed a lot of families," said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building & Construction Trades Council.

Glen Johnson, business manager for the 12,000-member Local 49 Operating Engineers, said Enbridge has a good record of employing union contractors. He said the union for heavy equipment operators in North Dakota and Minnesota already has thousands of members working on a range of oil and gas projects, from local feeder lines to interstate transmission lines and refinery upgrades.

North Dakota, the nation's No. 2 oil-producing state, ships 68 percent of its crude oil by rail because it lacks pipeline capacity.

"We are going to continue to increase production and we are going to need additional means to move that oil to market," said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, which supports the Sandpiper project.

Sandpiper is the most advanced of three proposed eastbound pipelines for Bakken oil. Koch Pipeline Co., which co-owns and operates pipelines in Minnesota, is considering a project to carry North Dakota crude oil through Minnesota to Illinois.

Even after the Sandpiper line is built, Kringstad said, railroads will play an important role in moving Bakken crude oil, especially to West Coast refineries.

"There likely won't be any westbound pipelines out of this region," Kringstad added.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

Twitter: @ShafferStrib