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Why construction of the Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota could happen as soon as this summer

After meetings packed with protesters and more than a year of procedural delays, the decision to green light Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement pipeline could come as early as this summer.

A rough depiction of the Line 3 replacement route in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

After meetings packed with protesters and more than a year of procedural delays, the decision to green light Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement pipeline could come as early as this summer.

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted unanimously to set an April briefing deadline, provided the state’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project is deemed adequate; the agency narrowly rejected the EIS back in December and asked for four things to be fixed before moving forward. That’s anticipated to happen next month.

That means Enbridge could finally be looking at discussions over whether to permit the 1,031-mile U.S.-Canada oil pipeline route as early as May or June. Enbridge says it is anticipating a decision on the certificate of need and route permits for the Line 3 Replacement Projects by late June. If the permits are granted by the PUC, there’s a period of time for reconsideration briefs and additional permits required before construction can begin. 

Eric Swanson, an attorney for Enbridge, asked the PUC not to delay the permitting process any further than it already has. “It means continued impacts on our shippers and the state and regional economies,” he said. “It means delayed jobs and delayed economic stimulus … it means higher costs.”

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Several parties at Tuesday’s meeting voiced objections to moving forward with briefings — the period when stakeholders present evidence and arguments regarding a project — until the completion of both the EIS and a separate cultural survey that would take stock of how the land targeted for construction is currently and historically been used by Native tribes.

On Jan. 2, five Minnesota tribes — the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Red Lake Band of Chippewa — filed a petition asking the PUC to delay the permitting process for the pipeline until a cultural survey on the proposed lands was finished.

The old Line 3 runs through two American Indian reservations: Leech Lake and Fond du Lac. Proposed alternative routes by Enbridge would run on land several tribes use for both ceremonial and daily activities.

Joe Plumer, the attorney for both White Earth and Red Lake, said the Line 3 replacement construction would disrupt and endanger land that has been used by Native tribes for hunting, harvesting wild rice and gathering medicinal herbs. And while the affected land isn’t on the reservations, he said, Minnesota treaties have allowed tribes to use the land for those purposes. “Off-reservation land rights are real,” Plumer said.

Yet Swanson said such information — and whether construction would negatively impact those activities — will be fully available by the time the administrative judge presiding over the case files her opinion. Administrative law judges are appointed to hear contested cases before the PUC, and their recommendations carry a lot of weight with commissioners. 

Commissioner Dan Lipschultz also reminded parties that just because the commission wants to wrap up evidentiary discussions by April doesn’t mean it will ultimately approve the pipeline.

“What I heard was an argument that delaying the process would ultimately delay the benefits of the project and … it seems to presuppose that we’re going to approve the project,” Lipschultz said. “That’s a supposition that’s really not supported here and not appropriate.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested an earlier timeframe for construction potentially to begin.