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Could pipeline politics affect Walz’s choice for next public utilities commissioner?

Enbridge’s Line 3 project looms especially large in the selection process for the next member of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Gov.-elect Tim Walz did not say whether Line 3 would influence his choice for the utilities commission.
Gov.-elect Tim Walz did not say whether Line 3 would influence his choice for the utilities commission.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Gov.-elect Tim Walz’s choice for the open spot on Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission will have a say in regulating electricity, natural gas and telecom industries in the state. But so far one energy project has loomed especially large over the selection process: a crude oil pipeline in northern Minnesota owned by Calgary-based Enbridge.

At least two prominent candidates have been deeply involved in contesting and litigating the company’s effort to build Line 3, while another handful of applicants have at least some ties to debate over the project. If built, the $2.6 billion Minnesota portion of the new pipeline would stretch 337 miles through north-central Minnesota before ending in Superior, Wisconsin, carrying 760,000 barrels of oil through the state each day.

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A spot on the commission is open because Nancy Lange, the current chairwoman of the PUC, is expected to leave when her term expires in January. For PUC applications to be driven by a single project such as Enbridge is “pretty unusual” for what has usually been a quiet branch of government, said Ellen Anderson, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab.

And even though the PUC has approved Line 3 and its route, Anderson said, politics over the controversial pipeline could still sink the candidacy of those tied to the project. “People tend not to get appointed if they’ve taken really strong positions on any of these issues because that’s really inappropriate for a PUC commissioner, generally,” said Anderson, who chaired the PUC for a year under Gov. Mark Dayton.

So who is applying?

Winona LaDuke
Honor the Earth
Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke has emphasized her role in the Line 3 debate more than any of the 24 applicants for the PUC job. LaDuke has been a fierce opponent of the pipeline as executive director of Honor the Earth, an environmental organization with tribal roots. Her group has worked to lobby the utilities commission through its decision-making process, but has also led protests and filed legal challenges over the project.

In an interview, LaDuke said the PUC went “rogue” when it approved Line 3. “I don’t know that there is a regulatory way to undo the decision that is done,” she said. “But it certainly informs future decisions for me.”

But LaDuke is not the only applicant to be part of the Enbridge debate. Leili Fatehi, another PUC hopeful, is an attorney representing the Sierra Club in legal challenges to Line 3. She told MinnPost that opposing Line 3 wasn’t directly behind her application to the commission, but the pipeline fight illustrates the importance of swaying the future of aging infrastructure, environmentalism and energy policy in the state.

A third applicant, Bill Grant, has worked against Line 3 as deputy commissioner of energy and telecommunications for the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The department has been a top Enbridge foe in the permitting process.

 

Leili Fatehi

Leili Fatehi

In a written statement, Grant did not mention Enbridge, but said “after serving under Governor Dayton for the last eight years, I have a strong sense of the opportunities ahead, but also the need for strong, experienced leadership at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to capitalize on those opportunities.”

On the flip side of the pipeline debate is state Sen. David Tomassoni, a DFLer from Chisholm and a prominent supporter of the Enbridge project. Tomassoni didn’t return calls asking why he applied to be a PUC commissioner, but he has been vocal about Line 3, even appearing in a video on the power company’s website last year.

Line 3 is “a very very big deal not only for the economic impact that it will have in regards to Minnesota itself but also to the jobs it will create,” Tomassoni said in Enbridge’s video.

Carly Melin, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council and a former DFL state representative, has also applied. While she declined to comment for this article, the council has vigorously backed Line 3.

A tricky choice for Walz

Anderson said all those ties to Line 3 — both for and against — could be problem for PUC applicants. The five-member panel is considered quasi-judicial, meaning they’re expected to be impartial when making rulings. Open advocacy on a controversial energy project could stain a person’s reputation for fairness and make them less likely to be chosen, Anderson said.

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The politics of Line 3 could prove another hurdle. The state Senate gets to vote on Commissioners, and the chamber is currently controlled by Republicans who overwhelmingly support Line 3. Senate Republicans would not be thrilled about candidates publicly hostile toward the pipeline project, Anderson said.

Bill Grant
Bill Grant
At the same time, Anderson said picking someone who openly favors Line 3 could prove just as politically tough for Walz, a DFLer, since many in his party have vehemently opposed the pipeline. Walz has said Line 3 should go forward if it can meet environmental regulations. “I think he’d be most prudent to try to find someone who is perceived as more neutral and open-minded about these issues,” Anderson said of Walz.

Anderson herself is proof that political fights do erupt over PUC appointments. She was tapped by Dayton to lead the PUC in March of 2011 after serving in the state Senate as the top DFLer on a committee related to energy and utilities. But Senate Republicans fired Anderson less than a year later by voting down her confirmation, saying in part that she was biased against fossil fuels.

In a written statement, Walz did not say whether Line 3 would influence his choice for the utilities commission. He did note the application period will be open until Jan. 9. “As with all of my commissioners, I am looking for someone who is experienced, hard-working, and dedicated to serving the people of Minnesota,” he said.

More than pipelines

Enbridge’s Line 3 is not the only issue driving applicants to the PUC. LaDuke, for example, said she’s interested in preparing Minnesota’s infrastructure to withstand severe weather and other issues related to climate change. LaDuke said she would also champion rural electrification and transportation issues. To that end, her résumé lists experience in a few community energy projects, including the installation of a wind turbine in Callaway, in 2010.

Carly Melin
Twitter
Carly Melin
Many applicants to the PUC also appear to have few, if any, links to the oil pipeline. Benjamin Stafford, policy and public affairs director of trade group Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, said the PUC holds “an incredible amount of influence on where the public interest goes,” and said he would hope to help facilitate the ongoing transition of energy utilities, such as Xcel, to carbon-free sources.

Anderson said Walz “strongly supports the development of clean energy” and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and will look to appoint a leader on those issues. She noted the PUC will preside over Xcel’s latest 15-year plan for where it gets power. The plan, which is updated every few years, will be submitted in 2019.

But she said Enbridge has stoked debate over PUC appointments. “It’s sort of a branch of government that’s pretty, quiet, that’s not as visible, although this whole pipeline debate has made it far more visible than it’s been in the past,” Anderson said. “But it’s good for people to pay attention to these appointments. They matter a lot.”