In face of the current pandemic, we see in sharp focus government’s critical role protecting our communities’ health. We applaud Gov. Tim Walz and his administration for their strong leadership in keeping us all safe, applying the best science for the public good.
But recent actions by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) during this crisis worry us greatly. Like the Trump administration, the MPCA announced it will grant polluters “flexibility.”
Our environmental laws were put in place for a reason. We ask the MPCA to assure the public that such “flexibility” won’t harm community health.
Specifically, the MPCA is moving forward on critical water crossing permits for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline without real public input. It canceled in-person public hearings for safety reasons. Instead of rescheduling, it replaced them with the euphemistically named “telephone town halls. But rather than giving real opportunities for questions and dialogue on this critical issue, for the MPCA “telephone town halls” meant that callers lucky enough to get into the queue on time each got two minutes to speak into the faceless void. There was no response from the MPCA.
Enbridge has had the MPCA’s ear throughout this process. As typically happens, public hearings were tacked on at the end. The MPCA’s decision to cancel them undermined its already weak nod to public engagement. In a democracy, the public should have a stronger voice than multinational corporations. The MPCA needs to engage with Minnesotans and independent scientists in a more powerful way, hearing arguments about Line 3’s serious risks, and publicly responding to criticisms of its analysis.
Let’s be clear about the stakes. Enbridge already has admitted that it can’t build the pipeline and meet all state environmental standards. State rules say pipeline routes should avoid crossing streams and wetlands. Line 3 would cross more than 200 streams and trench through 79 miles of wetlands. That’s not avoiding streams and wetlands. The MPCA permit review failed to weigh key issues, such as the water quality damage from crude oil spills. That needs public airing.
The MPCA justifies its decision to barrel ahead with this permit by saying it faces a November deadline for its Line 3 decision. If it doesn’t act, the federal government would pre-empt its decision, applying weaker environmental standards than Minnesota’s. But this argument makes no sense.
First, the MPCA already said “no” once to Line 3’s water crossing permits. Its first review stalled due to the Minnesota Court of Appeals’ rejection of regulators’ review of the pipeline’s spill risk. By the time that was resolved, the MPCA couldn’t meet its deadline to finish. It denied the permit and allowed Enbridge to reapply. The MPCA hasn’t explained why it can’t use this same deny-and-reapply approach based on the pandemic.
Second, the MPCA’s argument is self-serving. It’s already proposed approving the permits. It’s posted a pro-pipeline video on its webpage. Canceling public hearings conveniently avoids a difficult face-to-face conversation. Its approach sends the message that the deck is stacked for Enbridge and public hearings don’t matter anyway.
Third, there’s no need to rush the permit, let alone build the pipeline. The Minnesota Department of Commerce concluded Enbridge failed to prove Line 3 is needed for our regional energy security. Large financial institutions are backing off tar sands oil investments. Tar sands oil is the most expensive to produce and will be the first to lose profitability. Today, tar sands crude is going for $5 a barrel, cheaper than a pack of toilet paper.
Two more points deserve attention.
Last summer, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan issued an executive order committing the state and its agencies to engage with the state’s tribes “in true government-to-government relationships built on respect, understanding, and sovereignty.” The MPCA failed this commitment. The White Earth and Red Lake Bands found the MPCA’s permit reviews inadequate and petitioned the agency to hold a contested case hearing.
Lastly, the MPCA’s mission is “to protect and improve the environment and human health.” Sadly, the agency applies a weak definition of “protect.” It’s indisputable that Line 3 would damage clean water. The MPCA’s definition of “protecting” water is to reduce damage, not prevent it. If the MPCA keeps “protecting” clean water this way, someday we won’t have any left.
The MPCA needs to say “no” to the permit. At a minimum, it needs to hold the contested case hearing when the health crisis abates, giving people the opportunity to meaningfully engage.
Kamau Wilkins is chapter chair and Margaret Levin is state director for the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.
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