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Walz administration to continue legal challenge to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project

The governor and his Department of Commerce had been mulling whether to drop the Dayton administration’s appeal after taking office, but ultimately decided to stay the course after the lawsuit was thrown out last week on a technicality. 

A group of faith and indigenous leaders gathered Friday at the Capitol to protest Line 3.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said his administration would continue legal action started by his predecessor Mark Dayton to challenge the construction of a northern Minnesota oil pipeline, siding with environmentalists, tribes and many DFLers in the governor’s first major decision on the future of a natural resources project.

Walz said his office would file a petition with the Public Utilities Commission asking the independent regulators to reconsider approving a critical Certificate of Need for Enbridge’s Line 3. That petition is expected to be rejected, but it’s the first step toward filing a lawsuit over the $2.6 billion crude oil line plan.

The governor and his Department of Commerce had been mulling whether to drop Dayton’s appeal after taking office, but ultimately decided to stay the course after the lawsuit was thrown out last week for being filed too early. In a written statement Tuesday morning, Walz didn’t say he personally opposed Line 3, but acknowledged Enbridge has yet to win over many people concerned the project will help accelerate global warming and pose a spill risk to water and wild rice.

“As I often say, projects like these don’t only need a building permit to go forward, they also need a social permit,” Walz said. “Our administration has met with groups on all sides of this issue, and Minnesotans deserve clarity.”

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Enbridge wants to build Line 3 as a replacement for an old and corroding 1960s-era pipeline running through Minnesota on its way from Edmonton to Superior, Wisconsin. It’s one of several that cut through the region.

The 34-inch pipeline is running at about half its normal capacity, and the Calgary-based company worries it’s a safety risk. The PUC, whose members were all appointed by Dayton, cited safety as a priority when unanimously approving the Certificate of Need for Line 3. The planned 36-inch pipeline would carry about 760,000 barrels of oil each day on a different route through northern Minnesota, passing through the Mississippi headwaters, land on which tribes retain hunting and gathering rights and treasured lake country.

“Replacing an aging pipeline with new, modern construction, is the safest and best option for protecting the environment and communities,” Juli Kellner, a spokeswoman for Enbridge, told MinnPost in an email on Monday. In a Tuesday follow up, Kellner said Walz’s decision was “unfortunate” given the “thorough” review the Line 3 has faced.

Supporters of the project have argued that failing to build Line 3 would result in more oil trains, rather than less oil moving through Minnesota. (Some dispute that.) The project would also be a swift boost to rural economies in the region, winning support from many in the GOP and some labor unions. Mel Olson, president of United Piping, a Duluth-based company that often contracts with Enbridge, said Line 3 would give Minnesota workers good jobs close to home, when they’re often working on far-flung projects for weeks at at time.

“It means that they feed their families and get to see them a little more often than they normally do because this is in their backyards,” Olson told MinnPost.

Walz’s decision drew swift condemnation from Republicans and some in the DFL. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Walz made a “mistake” and that clarity is not needed on a project that has been heavily scrutinized. “There’s a lot of jobs that are waiting on this project to move forward,” Gazelka said.

photo of legislators gathered for press conference
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka condemned Walz’s decision.
Line 3 has faced vociferous protests, however, from those who see any new infrastructure to support fossil fuels as a harmful accelerant to global warming. Opponents also point out Enbridge spills in Minnesota and around the country as evidence oil pipelines are far from infallible.

On Friday, a group of church and indigenous leaders gathered at the state Capitol to urge Walz to fight Line 3 by restarting the appeals process, just one of many similar gatherings in recent weeks. Rebecca Voelker, Director of the Center for Sustainable Justice and a reverend at Lyndale United Church of Christ, said “because we say ‘yes’ to the sacredness of water and life, we must say ‘no’ to this Line 3 project.”

Joe Plummer, an attorney for the Red Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe, praised Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan in a statement on Tuesday for fighting to “protect the rights, health and way of life of the Ojibwe people.”

“The PUC was wrong to allow Enbridge to build Line 3 through treaty-protected lands,” he said, “and we look forward to making our case in court.”

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Walz’s petition is likely to be just one of many, as environmental groups have been quick to challenge Line 3 at every step in what has been a years-long regulatory process. The Department of Commerce has been challenging the PUC’s decision on a fairly narrow premise — that Enbridge hasn’t properly shown demand in Minnesota for oil carried by the pipeline.

The energy company hopes to build the pipeline by the end of the year, although it still needs permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the federal Army Corps of Engineers. Rather than deploying the sharp rhetoric that has been a hallmark of the Line 3 debate, Walz framed his appeal as another aspect of the ongoing regulatory process, akin to a fact-finding mission.

“By continuing that process, our Administration will raise the Department of Commerce’s concerns to the court in hopes of gaining further clarity for all involved,” he said.

MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan contributed to this story.