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Pipeline delay puts commissioner in hot seat

Senate Republicans set their sights on Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley after his department filed a new appeal against proposed northern Minnesota oil pipeline

ST PAUL, Minn. — It appears the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate is taking aim at another member of Gov. Tim Walz's cabinet, just a week after ousting his labor commissioner.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka Wednesday hinted it will be rough going for Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley at his confirmation hearing in the Energy Committee Friday, which is the first step toward a floor vote.

Sen. Gazelka made his remarks at a press conference where he sharply criticized Commissioner Kelley and his boss for their decision to file a new appeal that will force more delays in the proposed $3 billion Enbridge Energy Line 3 Pipeline project in northern Minnesota.

"Many of us were not contacted and we've been saying over and over this project needs to go forward; it's important for Minnesota," Gazelka told reporters.

He said GOP leaders had hoped to use the confirmation hearing to express how important Line 3 was to them. But even before the latest twist in the Line 3 Pipeline saga Kelley was already on thin ice with Capitol Republicans, according to Gazelka.  

"He oversees financial services and energy. And I've heard a number of complaints in the financial services sector first," Gazelka explained.

The Nisswa Republican said he privately told Walz in February that Kelley and Nancy Leppink, who headed the Dept. of Labor and Industry, weren't right for the posts they held.

The Senate, without much prior warning, decided to take up Leppink's confirmation during the August 12 special session. They voted along party lines to fire Leppink, which was predictable given that a committee sent her nomination to the floor without recommendation.

The last time lawmakers bounced a cabinet commissioner was 2008 when Democrats held a majority in the Senate. They voted to remove then-Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau from her transportation commissioner post. Molnau served both roles for then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The earliest the Senate could vote on Kelley's confirmation will be during the expected September special session. Each time Gov. Walz extends the peacetime state of emergency he must call legislators back to the Capitol to give them a chance to vote to strip his temporary emergency powers.

RELATED: Regulators revisit environmental review for Line 3 pipeline

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission gave the Line 3 project the green light in 2019, and after a series of appeals approved it again this year. It has strong support from construction trade unions and political leaders in northern Minnesota.

The Commerce Dept., in its formal appeal of the PUC ruling, said that Enbridge Energy hasn't proven there's a demand for the oil that would move through Line 3. The agency further contends the PUC erred by not requiring the Canadian company to prove there's a need for it.

The opposed by many environmental groups who want to wean the state off fossil fuels, especially Canadian oil. They contend that the state can meet its energy demands without the new stretch of pipeline.

Enbridge is attempting to replace the existing Line 3, asserting it's safer to move the oil products through buried pipes than overland on trains and trucks. The state has approved a change in the route that circumvents most tribal lands.

But the tribes opposed the project say it could still rupture and pollute areas where they still have treaty rights to fish and gather wild rice. Those rights cover a much larger area than the actual boundaries of the state's Native American communities.