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Walz administration reconsidering lawsuit against Enbridge pipeline project

Former Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration opposed the controversial proposal. Whether that approach will continue under Gov. Tim Walz is now unclear.

Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley shown speaking at a Jan. 4 press conference in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Under former Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota’s Department of Commerce put up a strong fight against a controversial proposal for a crude oil pipeline in northern Minnesota, even as the project won approvals and permits from state regulators.

But whether that approach will continue under Gov. Tim Walz, who was sworn in earlier this week, is now unclear. The fledgling DFL administration is evaluating whether to proceed with a key lawsuit challenging the Line 3 pipeline plan from Calgary-based Enbridge, Steve Kelley, the Commerce Commissioner, said on Wednesday. Kelley, a former DFL state senator, was appointed by Walz last week.

“The governor has asked the department to take another look, with the change of administrations, at the Enbridge litigation, and that’s my responsibility to do,” Kelley said during a panel discussion hosted by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “And let’s say I just haven’t finished that job in the last two days.”

The Line 3 project has drawn passionate debate, pitting environmentalists concerned about fossil fuel emissions and the safety of transporting crude oil through Minnesota’s lake country against some businesses and trade unions who say the new pipeline will bring an economic boost in Greater Minnesota.

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Protests against the pipeline have already erupted on a few occasions since Walz was elected, most recently in the middle of a speech Walz was giving in the Capitol shortly after being sworn in. A large group of unions, politicians, businesses and local chamber of commerce officials said they planned to hand deliver a letter to Walz’s office on Thursday morning urging the governor to withdraw the state lawsuit against Line 3.

Enbridge says the new 36-inch pipeline, known as Line 3, is necessary to replace an aging 34-inch pipeline that is corroding and operating at roughly half capacity. If built, the $2.6 billion, 337-mile Minnesota portion of the new Line 3 would carry roughly 760,000 barrels of oil per day through the state. The existing line begins in Edmonton and ends in Superior, Wisconsin. The new one would travel a similar but separate path that cuts through north and central Minnesota.

The state’s independent Public Utilities Commission granted Enbridge two key approvals last year — a Certificate of Need and a route permit. But the Commerce Department appealed that Certificate of Need in December, arguing Enbridge had not adequately shown the pipeline is necessary to meet state demand for oil, according to a written statement issued by Dayton at the time.

Enbridge Line 3, Public Utilities Commission designated route
State of Minnesota
Enbridge Line 3, Public Utilities Commission designated route
Dayton said he was “hopeful” that courts would interpret Minnesota law to “ensure that a project with this magnitude of environmental impact upon our state serves the needs of our citizens, rather than the financial interests of foreign corporations and countries.”

Walz did not take a side on the Commerce lawsuit in December, and now it appears he’ll need more time to think it over. In a follow-up interview on Wednesday, Kelley told MinnPost his agency will make “routine filings and those kinds of things” to keep the lawsuit intact until a decision is made.

Kelley said his plan is to do some research and listening around the state, which may involve travel to northern Minnesota where the pipeline would be built. But all of that is in the early stages. Kelley said he had yet to meet anybody from either side of the debate.

“I put my Line 3 binder in my car this evening to read,” he said.

Walz told the Star Tribune in October he accepted the PUC’s ruling, and has generally offered support for natural resource projects that meet state regulations. “The PUC did rule. We need to follow the process in place,” Walz said, according to the newspaper.

On Thursday, Walz issued a statement through a spokeswoman saying on “issues such as these, we must follow a transparent, clear, and robust process that is based in facts and science. When two governing bodies are at odds, I need to take time to determine which processes I believe achieve my standard of robustness.”

This includes working with Commissioner Kelley at the Department of Commerce to review this recent lawsuit as well as other information now available to me.”

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Kelley did say he had some principles to guide his research on Line 3. He said Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have emphasized “making fact-based decisions” and “progressive values.” He also said he supports moving the state away from fossil fuels.

“I’m a supporter of moving forward on renewable energy and I believe the governor and the lieutenant governor are committed to, in the long run, a clean energy economy in Minnesota,” Kelley said. “So to the extent that I have any kind of bias at all, that’s it.”