Sandpiper oil pipeline divides Minnesota

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. - The old adage that oil and water do not mix is proving true in none other than Minnesota's north woods.

It's as if lines have been drawn in the snow by those for and against the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline, which would run from North Dakota's Bakken oil fields through the northern third of Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin.

Houston-based Enbridge Energy through a subsidiary, North Dakota Pipeline Company, is seeking approval for the 600-mile project, while promising 1,500 construction jobs and $25 million in annual property taxes.

Enbridge says it needs the pipeline to meet demand for Bakken oil, but opponents and some state government agencies question the proposed corridor because it runs through the heart of some sensitive natural resources, including just downstream from the Mississippi River Headwaters.

"We just think that there's a better place to put this pipeline," says Richard Smith, president of Friends of the Headwaters, while standing next to the Mississippi's birthplace at Lake Itasca.

Smith is all for pipeline-related jobs and tax revenue, but he worries about water.

"Why should we put our fresh water at risk, our northern country lifestyle at risk, for the profits of a private company?" he asks.

Proposed Sandpiper corridor

The proposed Sandpiper corridor enters Minnesota just south of Grand Forks, North Dakota. It heads east to Enbridge's Clearbrook terminal and then south toward Park Rapids along an existing crude oil corridor. South of Park Rapids, the pipeline would follow a transmission line corridor to Superior, Wisconsin.

Sandpiper's Project Director Paul Eberth notes, "In our experience in developing pipeline routes, impacts to communities and the environment correlate to length of pipeline. And again, this route provides the shortest and most direct access to market."

At multiple public hearings across the state in January, Enbridge got to present its case.

Citizens, sporting pro and con stickers, also attended, presenting their views before an administrative law judge.

"These are great jobs. These aren't average jobs; these are fantastic jobs," said Edward Reynoso of the Teamsters.

However, Sherry Kutter of Grey Eagle, Minnesota, said, "This is not time to invest and enable the failing, outdated fossil fuel industry."

Pipeline differences in state government

Differences of opinion can also be found in different corners of Minnesota government.

As you can see on the neighboring Department of Commerce map, several options, including the project proposal, have been up for consideration; and even state government departments have different views. We have highlighted the map to help you understand some differences.

Commerce has determined that the corridors in yellow, including the Enbridge proposal, merit further study. The Pollution Control Agency has suggested the alternative you see in green, and the Department of Natural Resources notes corridors along and south of Interstate 94, which is near the red line, cross less sensitive areas.

For the PCA, the ultimate concern is water. It says Sandpiper would cross some of the highest quality water in the state.

"Our main concern has to do with the proximity of wetlands and streams and rivers on the project route, especially flowing water," says Reed Larson, north watershed section manager, PCA. "That particular area has some remote stretches that are hard to access in the event of a spill."

"You're not looking at the chances of that happening in 2015," says Paul Stolen, a retired DNR employee and pipeline veteran. "You're looking at it over the life of the project."

From Stolen's perspective, pipelines need to be understood for what they are.

"These pipelines are an extension of an industrial zone between wherever the oil comes from and the refineries, and so it has to be looked at that way," Stolen says.

Pipeline safety

Enbridge says it is a safer company, following the 2010 pipeline spill of roughly 800,000 gallons that affected Michigan's Kalamazoo River.

In fact, Project Director Paul Eberth touts Enbridge's Sandpiper precautions.

"We have redundancy built into our leak detection systems; we have higher concentration of valve placement in Minnesota, for example, than we do in North Dakota because of certain resources and the different topography," notes Eberth.

In addition, green epoxy, intended to inhibit corrosion, covers Enbridge pipes that have been staged for the project along a Hubbard County road not far from the Mississippi River Headwaters.

Enbridge says it had originally anticipated construction by now.

Sandpiper decisions

When and if construction occurs depends on decisions in the coming months.

An administrative law judge, who held the January public hearings, is scheduled to submit a recommendation in mid-April to the Public Utilities Commission on whether a Certificate of Need should be granted.

The PUC could make a ruling this summer. If a need is found, a route determination must be made.

Enbridge says it has limited flexibility beyond its proposal.

"Routes that don't go to Clearbrook and Superior are not the project that we've proposed and wouldn't have the same shipper support or the same rate structure that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved. So, it essentially would be a new project and a re-start," says Eberth.

"That's not my problem," says Richard Smith of Friends of the Headwaters. "My problem is advocating a better route for this pipeline."

Smith's group wants a pipeline that cuts across the southwest corner of the state.

"We'd just like to see this pipeline moved to a better spot," Smith says.


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