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Where the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project stands, and where it goes from here

An FAQ about the $2.6 billion project.

An image of the "Line 9" Enbridge oil pipeline being worked on in 2014 in Toronto
An image of the "Line 9" Enbridge oil pipeline being worked on in 2014 in Toronto.
REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Calgary-based Enbridge is close to building a crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota’s lake country after its plans received key approval from state energy regulators this year.

But despite the green light from the Public Utilities Commission, Enbridge has yet to break ground for its $2.6 billion, 337-mile Minnesota portion of the Line 3 project. That’s because the company still faces several government hurdles and legal challenges to moving the pipeline ahead.

At the same time, Enbridge will also be navigating a new political environment in the state, now that the DFL gained a majority in the state House and DFLer Tim Walz was chosen to succeed Gov. Mark Dayton. Here’s where the project stands, and where things go from here:

Why are they building this thing?

Enbridge owns the world’s longest transportation system for crude oil and liquids and is Canada’s largest natural gas distribution provider. The company runs a series of pipelines across the U.S. and Canada, six of which pass through a northern Minnesota corridor.

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One of those is the Line 3 pipeline, built in the 1960s, which carries crude oil from Edmonton to Superior, Wisconsin, through northern Minnesota. The company says the 34-inch diameter pipeline is corroding and now operating at roughly half its original capacity. A new line is needed to restore that capacity, according Enbridge. Others have also expressed concern about leaks from the old line.

Enbridge is currently subject to a consent decree with the federal government that was issued following 2010 oil spills in Michigan and Illinois. The Michigan leak spewed hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek, and as part of the decree, the government ordered the company to replace the U.S. portion of the existing Line 3 as long as it could get approval to do so.

The new Line 3 is set to be a 36-inch pipeline that follows the current pipeline’s route from the Minnesota border to Enbridge’s Clearbrook terminal, southeast of Lower Red Lake. The new line would then jog south before turning east near Park Rapids, passing through north-central Minnesota’s lake country before ending in Superior. It’s expected to carry roughly 760,000 barrels of oil per day.

So is this a done deal?

Not completely. The state’s Public Utilities Commission has already granted the Line 3 project a Certificate of Need and OK’d the route, probably the two most important and difficult permissions needed for Enbridge to start construction.

The PUC, a panel of five commissioners appointed by the governor, will decide Thursday whether to reconsider that route decision. While it voted unanimously to give Enbridge its Certificate of Need, the vote to approve the pipeline course was 3-2.

If this is a replacement line, why is the new route different from old one?

There were actually a wide variety of alternative route options. One would have run even farther south from the Clearbrook terminal, avoiding the Mississippi River’s headwaters, before turning north again and ending in Superior. That was the longest and most expensive option considered by the PUC, which opposed that route in part because it passed through nine cities and could have threatened surface water near where St. Cloud gets its drinking water.

Another option, recommended by an Administrative Law Judge, was for the new Line 3 pipeline to run where the current one does. But the PUC, Enbridge and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe  dismissed that, saying the Leech Lake Band wouldn’t allow the new pipeline on its land.

Environmentalists opposed to the route worry a spill could pollute the Mississippi River’s headwaters or other nearby lakes and waterways in the region. The pipeline is also expected to run through some remote territory, increasing concern that it would be difficult to quickly catch and fix a spill.

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In an email, Juli Kellner, a spokeswoman for Enbridge, said the final route through Minnesota “reflects years of environmental and cultural studies, plus extensive engagement efforts with Tribes, individual landowners and local communities resulting in more than 50 route changes of the line.”

So what remains to be decided?

Beyond the PUC, Enbridge still must obtain a lengthy list of permits that include state, local and federal permissions. That includes permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

Whether those permits represent a substantial hurdle for Enbridge depends on who you talk to.

Barb Naramore, DNR’s assistant commissioner, said her agency needs to grant Enbridge permits to cross state land and waters, take endangered species, minimize harm to wetlands and more. Yet while Naramore said the DNR has denied permits on projects before, the agency generally seeks to work with companies to address permitting problems if any arise so that construction can still happen.

Map showing the path of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement preferred route.
Naramore said it’s “highly unlikely” any large-scale changes to the project or its route would be needed because of DNR permitting, and said it’s “quite possible” it will need no revisions.

Enbridge does not appear to be anticipating any major bumps in the road, either. A fact-sheet forwarded by Kellner says Enbridge expects to start construction early in 2019, and plans to start using the new Line 3 by the end of the year.

But Scott Strand, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental firm involved in litigation over Line 3, said the remaining permits could still present obstacles to Enbridge. He said because of high interest in the case, the permitting process will likely be more scrutinized and contested than for an average construction project and could result in “dramatic impact” to the project. Any decision made can possibly be challenged in court, he noted.

And while Strand said he doesn’t expect the PUC to reopen its decision on the route, legal challenges over PUC decisions, such as granting the route permit, may hinder or at least delay the pipeline project. Strand said he opposes the Line 3 project because the U.S. needs to transition away from fossil fuels to help ward off climate change. “Obviously Enbridge wants everybody to think that it’s all done, but it’s not,” Strand said.

Did the results of the election change anything, one way or another?

Neither Gov.-elect Tim Walz or new DFL majority in the state House are likely to be a major roadblock to a new Enbridge pipeline. Walz is limited in what he can do from the governor’s mansion, and has offered support for the project if it can meet existing regulations and standards.

If House DFLers try and slow down or stop the Line 3 project, any legislation would probably stall in the GOP-led Senate. (It’s unclear if they will try and do so, and some in the party support the new Enbridge line.)

Sen. David Osmek, chairman of the Senate’s Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, said he could “pretty much guarantee” such bills wouldn’t be considered.

The Republican from Mound said the aging pipeline needs to be replaced for safety concerns. He said while the region’s energy will eventually come from renewables, it will be an “oil-based economy for the foreseeable future” and the state needs reliable infrastructure for it.