Enbridge Energy's plans for a new pipeline to carry North Dakota crude oil across northern Minnesota got a major boost Monday when an administrative judge concluded that the Sandpiper project is needed — and that other proposed routes are not as good.

The finding by Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman is not the final word on the $2.6 billion proposed pipeline. But it was a clear defeat for environmental groups, which questioned the need, pointed to the risk of spills and suggested six alternative routes.

"Everyone agrees that an oil spill in Aitkin County or Carlton County would be very bad," Lipman wrote in a 104-page ruling released late Monday. "Whether it would be better, or less likely, for a pipeline to break in another community, nobody can say for sure."

The route favored by Enbridge takes a Z-shaped path, running east from the North Dakota border into Clearbrook, Minn., where Enbridge owns an oil terminal. Then the line would turn south toward Park Rapids following existing crude oil pipelines and run east to Superior, partly on a transmission line right of way. North Dakota has approved its portion of the 610-mile pipeline from the Bakken oil region.

Much of the Minnesota route is unpopulated, yet it runs through a region covered with wetlands and lakes.

Lipman concluded that Enbridge's proposed route "does the best job of minimizing potential impacts to human populations and environmental resources." Denying the company a certificate of need "would have an adverse effect on the future adequacy, reliability and efficiency of energy supply" in Minnesota and other states, he wrote.

Enbridge and its supporters were pleased by Lipman's finding, which is a recommendation to the state Public Utilities Commission. It has authority over crude oil pipeline development in the Minnesota.

"Sandpiper has broad and deep support throughout Minnesota," said Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little in an e-mail, noting that 60 Minnesota legislators and most county commissions along the route favor the project.

It still faces a separate PUC review of the proposed route, a process that will take months and require another round of public hearings and testimony overseen by Lipman. Enbridge hopes to begin construction early next year, Little said.

Environmental attorneys said the fight isn't over.

"We are disappointed," said Leigh Currie, an attorney representing the Friends of the Headwaters, a group that formed in the Park Rapids area in opposition to the pipeline. "We are concerned that the state is moving forward with a decision of this magnitude without the proper environmental review."

Honor the Earth, another environmental group, has asserted the project would violate historic Indian treaties and threaten wild rice lakes. Frank Bibeau, an attorney for the group, said litigation is inevitable. "What we are waiting for is something to file [a lawsuit] against," he said in an interview. "It is going to end up in court, that's for sure."

In his ruling, Lipman said the state's broad rules already made the review "a lot harder than it ought to be." He urged the PUC to decide whether it needs evidence about the consequences of climate change, which opponents presented during the process, to decide oil pipeline routes.

Unions and business interests praised the ruling.

"This is a big deal to Minnesota's energy future," said Bill Blazar, acting president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "We have got this resource in North Dakota. Adding a line like Sandpiper is a way to tap it and tap it safely. It is a good thing."

Kevin Pranis, organizing director for the Minnesota/North Dakota Laborers' union, whose members would be among 1,500 construction workers on the project, said the findings give "clear guidance to the commission as to what the facts and choices are in front of them."

Environmental groups and state agencies wanted the commission to look at alternative routes, all of which would cross the state south of the northern lakes region. Enbridge said they would cost more and posed their own environmental risks.

"They would have been cost prohibitive for Enbridge and would kill the project," said Ed Reynoso, political director for Teamsters Joint Council 32, whose members also would work on the project.

Enbridge had declined to say whether it would drop the project if its route were rejected in favor of a longer, more expensive one.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 Twitter: @ShafferStrib