Unions, business and farm groups joined Monday in support of a proposed northern Minnesota crude oil pipeline, while environmental and climate activists told regulators the project is a mistake.

Minnesotans' divided sentiments about pipelines surfaced at the first of five public hearings this week on the proposed Sandpiper project. The hearing at St. Paul RiverCentre drew more than 300 people.

The $2.6 billion, 610-mile pipeline would deliver North Dakota crude oil to Superior, Wis., where other pipelines already feed refineries in the Midwest and East. It is one of two pipelines that Calgary-based Enbridge Energy is planning across northern Minnesota.

When signing in at the hearing, participants had to declare their views, and more than 130 people indicated they favored the project. Slightly fewer said they opposed it. About three dozen people testified before an early evening break.

"We have a fossil fuel monkey on our backs and we are being offered another fix," said Jerry Striegel of St. Paul, echoing the views of others who spoke of the threat of climate change if the world doesn't reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

But unions representing thousands of workers who would get the construction jobs said the oil bounty from North Dakota helps U.S. energy security and much of it already crosses Minnesota on oil trains. Pipelines, they said, can be built and operated safely.

"These members need to have this work," said David LaBorde, Teamsters International pipeline director, one of several union officials to speak in favor of the project. "In northern Minnesota, we have a significant problem in getting good-paying jobs."

Unions have emerged as vocal advocates of the project, especially the Teamsters, Laborers and Pipeliners unions, which have offered estimates of up to 3,000 short-term jobs. Unions are allied not only with the oil industry, but with farm and business groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which also testified in support of the project.

Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, said 150 Minnesota grain elevators are within 50 feet of tracks where oil trains pass.

"We have concerns from a safety standpoint about being that close," he said. "We have several thousand people who are put in jeopardy every day."

Zelenka also said farmers faced major delays and extra expense last year as grain deliveries competed against crude oil traffic on railroads. He cited a University of Minnesota study that the agriculture sector lost $100 million because of rail delivery issues.

The Sandpiper is proposed to run from North Dakota into Clearbrook, a small town and oil terminal in northwestern Minnesota where other crude oil pipelines converge. From there, the proposed route jogs south, along an existing crude oil pipeline, passing east of Itasca State Park. Its proposed path then skirts the city of Park Rapids, and turns east following power lines to an oil terminal in Superior, Wis.

In December, a state study of six alternative routes, all farther south of the Enbridge's, found environmental risks with all of them. Those routes have been proposed by environmental interests who argue the state's northern wetlands already have too many pipelines.

Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, who is investigating the need for the pipeline, presided over Monday's hearing and is expected to issue a report to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in April on whether the line needs to be built. The commission is expected to vote on the project later this year. Enbridge says 92 percent of landowners along its preferred route have signed easement deals.

Environmental opposition has been led by Friends of the Headwaters, a newly formed Park Rapids-based group and MN350, focused on climate issues and Honor the Earth, co-founded by two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Nation in northern Minnesota. Activists said they plan an outdoor rally on Tuesday before the second public hearing in Duluth, where the temperature is forecast to be around 0 degrees.

Kathy Hollander, a volunteer with MN350, disputed the claim that pipelines will displace oil trains. Railroads, she said, will continue to ship crude oil even after pipelines are built because trains are making deliveries to East and West Coast refineries not served by pipelines. The group wants to halt pipelines as a strategy to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

"Now we are beginning to really limit our options," Hollander said of the effects of fossil fuels on the climate. "We are the first generation to really feel the impact of climate change, and we are the last generation to be able to mitigate the worst effects of this."

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 • @ShafferStrib