On Friday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will render its decision on the Enbridge application for a certificate of need for its proposed Sandpiper crude-oil pipeline. Sandpiper would convey up to 375,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil per day over a distance of 610 miles from Beaver Lodge Station, N.D., to Superior, Wis.

Will the PUC have the wisdom and courage to deny the certificate of need on the grounds that the adverse impacts on human lives would trump the economic benefits of more oil?

Minnesota administrative rules require the PUC to grant the certificate of need for a large petroleum pipeline like Sandpiper if denial could compromise the future adequacy, reliability or efficiency of energy supply to the applicant’s customers or to the people of Minnesota and neighboring states. However, the rules also require that the PUC take into consideration the effect of the proposed facility upon the natural and socioeconomic environments.

Along with the additional energy to be derived from oil flows in a permitted Sandpiper, more emissions of heat-trapping, climate-disrupting greenhouse gases would be generated — emissions equivalent to those from an estimated 13 million additional cars. The PUC is faced with a value judgment in which economic gains are in conflict with the requirements for human survival. The administrative rules give no numerical weighting factors by which to score the benefits vs. the detriments of the additional oil.

How badly are greenhouse-gas reductions needed? We’ve come to associate climate disruption with carbon dioxide emissions, but methane — another carbon compound — is about 30 times more potent in trapping heat. The Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost layer is thawing faster as global temperatures rise, releasing increasing amounts of methane as it melts. The journal New Scientist warns: “If the global climate warms another few tenths of a degree, a large expanse of the Siberian permafrost will start to melt uncontrollably.” The result: a significant amount of extra greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, creating unbearably hot conditions on Earth.

The PUC’s rules are written in terms of consequences to society, not just to Minnesotans. Through increased emissions, a major increase in crude-oil flow would have adverse environmental impacts on all peoples. Recent incidents of temperatures as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit in cities in India illustrate the rising frequency and intensity of heat waves. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the surface area of permanent Arctic ice cover is shrinking at a rate of 9 percent each decade, causing the Earth to absorb increasing amounts of sunlight and become hotter. Scientists project as much as a 3-foot sea-level rise by 2100; freshwater supplies are already being contaminated in Florida.

If it would choose to reject Enbridge’s application, the PUC would be discarding the advice of the administrative law judge for the contested Sandpiper case, who recommended approval even after learning of these adverse impacts in hundreds of testimonies. In contrast to Keystone XL, there’s no other regulatory body having jurisdiction, because Sandpiper would not cross an international boundary.

In this instance, the PUC is the only Minnesota agency that can mandate protection of the rights of the state’s citizens, and those of the entire world, to a livable future.


Stan Sattinger, of Minneapolis, is a retired engineer and member of MN350, an organization seeking to inspire Minnesotans to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis.