Both candidates for Minnesota governor say they support a massive northern Minnesota pipeline project that is opposed by environmentalists and some American Indians — as well as the administration of current Gov. Mark Dayton.

The next governor, when he takes office in January, will almost immediately face major decisions about the complex, controversial project, including whether to continue the Department of Commerce's opposition to it.

Republican Jeff Johnson and Democrat Tim Walz both say they support the current path to construction, which would likely begin sometime next year after pipeline company Enbridge obtains the necessary permits.

But Walz's position on Enbridge has not always been clear. His running mate Rep. Peggy Flanagan — a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe — fought the pipeline in the Legislature, in part because its planned route runs through American Indian treaty lands in northern ­Minnesota.

Walz said he is satisfied with the June decision by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to allow the project to move forward.

"The PUC did rule. We need to follow the process in place," said Walz, who represents southern Minnesota in Congress, and has won the backing of construction trade unions who have been forceful pipeline advocates.

Walz also said he was encouraged that two of the state's five largest Ojibwe bands — all of whom intervened in the Enbridge case — have suspended their opposition to Line 3. But he said he wants continued engagement with the remaining three.

Walz said his administration would do a better job than Dayton's of pushing companies to win a "social permit." He described that as a buy-in from other landowners, local officials and environmentalists during a project's conception, as an alternative to protracted regulatory, political and legal battles.

"So you don't get these situations where people feel like their concerns were never heard," Walz said.

Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner from Plymouth, attacked Walz during a debate Sunday for being wishy-washy on the project.

"Tim, I will tell you: I give you credit. You are better than any politician I know at answering a question without answering a question, because that was 90 seconds of happiness, and I don't know exactly what you would do with Line 3," ­Johnson said.

As he's represented a conservative-leaning congressional district over the last dozen years, Walz has allied strongly with construction trade unions. But as a statewide candidate, he needs to rack up big margins with urban Democrats and tribal citizens. Many of those Democrats are against a project that will carry oil through northern Minnesota, risking the state's and sovereign tribal nations' vast network of waterways, and enabling the continued use of carbon-based energy that scientists say is the likely cause of global warming.

The company and project defenders argue that the new pipeline will merely replace an existing one, increasing safety and environmental quality and reducing the need for hazardous oil trains.

The 1960s-vintage Line 3 is aging and corroding and operates at only 51 percent of capacity due to safety concerns. The new pipeline — which would cost $2.6 billion to build the Minnesota section — would restore the full flow of oil to 760,000 barrels per day and constitute one of the largest Minnesota construction projects in recent history.

Jobs vs. the environment

It would create more than 4,000 jobs at its peak, according to the company. Most will be high-paying union jobs.

But it would also open a new region of Minnesota's lakes and rivers to environmental degradation from an oil spill, opponents say. The pipeline would follow Enbridge's current pipeline corridor to Clearbrook, but then jog south to Park Rapids before heading east to ­Superior, Wis.

The next governor's administration will have to decide whether to continue the state Commerce Department's current opposition. In September, Commerce asked the PUC to vacate the June decision that gave Enbridge the go-ahead. The agency charged that the decision was "affected by legal error and is unsupported by evidence."

Walz said he would hear out concerns from the Commerce Department, but is not inclined to stop the project given the PUC's decision.

The next administration will also grant important environmental permits from both the Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources. A governor could use that process to continue to impede the project, which was first proposed in 2014.

Finally, the next governor could also face his first real crisis: pipeline protests like at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota in 2016, when demonstrators were cleared off the construction site with dogs, riot gear and water cannons.

So far, Line 3 protests have been limited. At least 50 anti-pipeline activists shut down part of downtown Bemidji in August, half of whom were cited for disorderly conduct but not arrested. In September, the PUC canceled a public meeting on Enbridge after protests erupted in its St. Paul hearing room.

Johnson said he would call the National Guard as needed in the event of protests.

"After consulting with the Adjutant General, I would absolutely consider calling up the National Guard to help local law enforcement deal with possible pipeline construction protests," he said. "Local sheriff deputies frequently approach me with their concerns about protests disrupting their communities and stretching limited resources."

Walz, who served 24 years in the National Guard, said he would balance public safety with free speech rights. Asked about calling up the Guard in the case of an unruly protest, Walz said he would seek to avoid an escalation like at Standing Rock by heading off confrontation.

"We're much better off with consultation and finding consensus on the front end than we are at using National Guard troops on protests," Walz said.

Winona LaDuke, executive director of the indigenous environmental group Honor the Earth, said she and her allies are waiting — for now: "We are hoping that the system works. I am hoping that the final approval for Enbridge doesn't occur."

But if construction begins, the next governor can expect environmental militancy, including during the freezing winter weather, LaDuke said.

"If the system doesn't respond, we will act to protect our water and future generations. This is a time of necessity. We will see thousands of people come" to protest, she said. "It's in the state's hands. It's in the hands of the governor-elect, whoever that may be."

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042