Allowing Enbridge to build a controversial new oil pipeline across northern Minnesota would be better for the environment than to continue relying on the aging, corroding pipeline that it would replace, according to staff for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC staff comments are a recommendation for a new Line 3, but they are not the final decision in regard to the project.

After conducting four public meetings this month, the PUC is expected to determine whether the proposed $2.6 billion Line 3 project should get a "certificate of need" and, if so, what route the pipeline should take.

As is common before PUC meetings, the commission's staff files briefing papers that sum up the issues. They often include PUC staff analysis and recommendations.

In briefing papers filed Friday, PUC staff wrote: "A fair reading of the record would support the conclusion that, with respect to effects of the [Line 3] project on the natural environment, the consequences of granting a certificate of need for the project are more beneficial than denying it because of the risk of catastrophic failure of the existing line, despite it being operated at reduced pressure."

The 1960s-vintage Line 3, one of six Enbridge pipelines that ferry Canadian oil across Minnesota, runs at only 51 percent capacity due to safety concerns. Enbridge said a new pipeline would be safer and would restore the full flow of oil. If a new Line 3 is denied, Enbridge plans to keep operating — and regularly repairing — the old one.

As proposed, a new Line 3 would divert from Enbridge's existing pipeline corridor at Clearbrook, Minn., jutting south to Park Rapids before heading east to Superior, Wis. Opponents of the project — environmental and American Indian groups — said Enbridge's new route would open a new region of lakes, rivers and wild-rice waters to degradation from possible oil spills.

Scott Strand, an attorney for the environmental group Friends of the Headwaters, said the PUC staff seems to see environmental threats from a new pipeline as secondary to worries over old Line 3.

"They have made a judgment that if [the PUC] makes the old line go away, that trumps all other issues, and I just don't think that's the case."

In April, Administrative Law Judge Ann O'Reilly recommended that Enbridge be granted a certificate of need due to Line 3's constant need for repairs and its "integrity issues," as well to prevent rationing to Enbridge's customers. Enbridge maintains it doesn't have enough pipeline capacity to meet oil shippers' needs.

While administrative law judge decisions carry significant weight, like recommendations from the PUC staff they are not binding.

Enbridge said in a statement Monday that it was "pleased to see the PUC staff has agreed" with O'Reilly's recommendation for a certificate of need.

The PUC staff took issue with O'Reilly's recommendation to tie the certificate of need to the proposed pipeline's route.

O'Reilly said the new route's possible environmental consequences to society — namely oil spills — outweighed its benefits. Instead, she recommended that Enbridge dig up old Line 3 and drop a new pipeline in its place.

However, the existing Line 3 runs through two Indian reservations, and one band — the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe — has publicly and adamantly opposed any new pipelines on its land.

The PUC staff wrote Friday that O'Reilly's "effort to single out one route as a necessary condition for the commission to find there is a need for the project does not comply with statute, rule and the commission's past practice."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003