Let’s try some word association: What comes to mind when you hear “fossil fuels” and “environmental damage” — is it “climate change”? What about “oil pipeline” and “water impacts” — perhaps “oil spill”? Interestingly, those topics were not considered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) when issuing a draft water permit to construct the new and expanded Enbridge tar sands oil Line 3 pipeline across northern Minnesota and the Mississippi headwaters.
We are four of the scientists who submitted scientific comments to the MPCA about the project’s required 401 water crossing permit, which led to this summer’s contested case hearing. In October, the administrative law judge ruled in favor of the MPCA’s draft permit.
As scientists who have worked in water resources management, geology, ecosystem assessment, energy systems, and public health, we were shocked at how independent science has been largely ignored in the permit review process. We want to share what we learned with other Minnesotans, and to assert that a comprehensive scientific assessment of the Line 3 project has not yet been accomplished.
We observed that:
- Independent scientists like us only had limited opportunity for input at the tail end of a long process, which included a “draft permit approval” before the public even got to view the record. By the time we were allowed to communicate our technical concerns to MPCA, it had already committed to disregarding much of the science about climate, water and land. In contrast, the record shows that Enbridge’s engineers and staff had many months of insider access to MPCA staff, with meetings and long-running email threads. That let Enbridge permeate the process and influence the terms of discussion from the very beginning, a phenomenon others have labeled “regulatory capture.”
- While MPCA staff should function as independent scientists on behalf of the public good, they cannot. Agency leaders have chosen to narrowly define the role of a regulatory agency in terms of what it can do and consider. For example, MPCA leadership decided — incorrectly, by our assessment — that they could not take into account three scientific problems that directly bear on this project: 1) the cumulative impacts that this project’s 212 stream crossings and thousands of acres of wetland crossings will have on water quality, what we described as “death by a thousand cuts”; 2) the downstream effects of oil spills, and 3) climate change. By pre-determining what science their staff could and could not pay attention to, they entered into this permitting process with one hand tied behind their back, scientifically speaking.
- Good scientific decisions take into account the collective knowledge produced by many researchers. For example, we cited 120 studies and reports in our public comment to the MPCA. By contrast, Enbridge employees and MPCA staff leaned almost exclusively on statements like “in my experience” during their testimony. The judge accepted — indeed, actively affirmed — that as being most valuable, thus dealing a deathblow to science’s power to protect the public.
Finally, we observed that a court of law is a remarkably poor place to conduct good science. Surely this should be the last resort. But it was the only venue for participation that we independent scientists were given. Further, this contested case hearing put the burden of proof on volunteer scientists, environmental groups and tribes to prove that this project will cause harm, rather than on Enbridge and the MPCA to show that it will not.
We are science and health professionals who, like many colleagues, live with a powerful daily awareness of the immediate need to act to protect our only home — the natural world. We are in the midst of an ongoing climate crisis. We are witness to mass extinction of species and grim prospects for fresh water ecosystems. We see how these changes are already severely impacting Minnesotans.
Does the judge’s ruling in favor of the project change the reality of climate impact from burning tar sands? Can the MPCA’s narrow view prevent the cumulative degradation of water quality? Will it eliminate the risk of an oil spill in the Mississippi River’s headwaters?
We are waiting for the state to answer these questions in a way that protects people and the planet.
Laura Triplett, Ph.D., is an associate professor of geology at Gustavus Adolphus College. Christine Dolph, Ph.D., is a research scientist in the fields of stream and wetland ecology. Laalitha Surapaneni, M.D., is an internal medicine physician at the University of Minnesota. James Doyle, Ph.D., is a professor of physics at Macalester College. Affiliations are provided for identification purposes only; all authors participated in this work independently of their institutions.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)