Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) staff had police evict staff from the Sierra Club and MN 350 from Enbridge Line 3 hearings Tuesday — without giving them any advanced warning of problems. The actions were arbitrary, overzealous, and one sided.
Both the Sierra Club and MN 350 are opposed the proposed expansion of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota. In a statement today, the Sierra Club said:
It’s extremely troubling that PUC staff is forcibly removing Line 3 opponents from public hearings. We have worked for years to encourage the public to trust and participate in the PUC process, and this behavior is further eroding the public’s confidence that the process is fair. These proceedings will have significant consequences for all Minnesotans, and we hope the commissioners will act to ensure that the public is not being shut out.
At PUC staff direction, three police officers escorted Natalie Cook, a Sierra Club North Star Chapter organizer, from the Metro Square building Tuesday, where the PUC holds its meetings. Later that day, two officers evicted Andy Pearson, an MN 350 organizer, and Michelle Shaw, an MN 350 volunteer, under threat of arrest for trespass if they remained.
Police initially told Cook the PUC banned her from Metro Square for a year. That was later reduced to just Tuesday. Pearson and Shaw also were banned for the day. PUC staff also put restrictions where Cook and Pearson could be in the building when they returned.
[Full disclosure: I am a Sierra Club volunteer active on the Line 3 issue and work with Cook and Pearson.]
The PUC staff actions affected Line 3 advocacy. The Sierra Club is an intervening party in this case, represented by contract attorney Leili Fatehi; Cook consults with Fatehi during the hearings. Removing Cook from the building affected her ability to provide consultation. MN 350 belongs to the Northern Water Alliance and Pearson was supposed to be in the main room Tuesday acting as the Alliance’s pipeline expert. Removing him from the room removed his expertise.
The Sierra Club and the Alliance jointly submitted a letter to the PUC Wednesday morning registering their protest and demanding action. According to the joint complaint filed with the PUC:
The crux of the problems are three-fold: (1) the rules have been consistently inconsistent and changing, (2) these “rules” are being enforced arbitrarily and without any proper notice or explanation of how and when alleged violations have taken place, and (3) the manner of enforcement has been police intimidation. The result is that intervening parties are left confused, frightened, and paralyzed about where they are allowed to be and what they are allowed to do.
We want clear rules in writing, direction to PUC staff that violation of rules be put in writing, and that police be used as a last line of enforcement.
The Line 3 hearing stopped for a half hour this morning while parties came to a closed-door compromise. Cook and Pearson were allowed to continue participating. The PUC did not announce details of the agreement or make public comments on the situation.
Confusing Ticketing System
Line 3 has been a highly controversial project. With a final vote imminent, participants are filling the main PUC hearing room and spilling into two overflow rooms.
Anticipating high demand from attendees, the PUC created a first-come, first-served ticketing system. Parties have jockeyed to get tickets in the main hearing room. People start lining up early to get the good seats (kind of like a very small rock concert).
The system has had flaws and rules have not been clear. Charges have been flying about people trying to game the ticket system. Some people have served as place holders, arriving early and passing their tickets to other organizational leaders who show up later. Others worked out ticket swapping arrangements if someone had to leave.
This ticketing system — and its arbitrary and over zealous enforcement — seem to be the root cause of the evictions of Line 3 opponents.
On one hand, pipeline opponents have complained that pro-pipeline organizations have paid people to stand in line to get tickets. A June 22 Star Tribune Op/Ed by Sara Suppan provides more details. It reads in part:
The … ticketing system proved easily corruptible by malevolent actors. Once the doors finally opened on Tuesday, a couple of dozen teenagers (or very young adults) wearing “Minnesotans for Line 3” T-shirts got their tickets and promptly exited the building as a group, never to return to the meeting. They effectively ate their tickets so that no authentic members of the public could take those spots.
Cook and Pearson work as organizers. Their jobs include helping people understand the PUC process and engage in it. They had been helping to facilitate ticket swaps. If people they knew had to leave, they were helping find other like-minded people to get their tickets. They contacted the PUC to try to understand the rules and stay within them, changing behavior when they got additional guidance.
Their efforts to help ticket swaps appeared to be within the guidelines. On the PUC tickets, it says: “A particular public ticket is transferable — if the holder wishes to pass the ticket to another member of the public, then that recipient may use the ticket.”
Cook was helping with ticket transfers on Tuesday morning and was told by PUC staff she could not serve as an intermediary. She agreed to stop. Shortly after, police arrived and told her she was being evicted. She received no warning that if she served as a ticket intermediary she would be evicted.
In Pearson’s case, he got in line for a ticket Tuesday and went inside. He later learned that Northern Water Alliance wanted him to be an official consultant. He got a special badge for intervenors. He informed PUC staff that he he had got the badge and had passed off his ticket and everything seemed fine, he said. After lunch, police arrived to escort him and Shaw out of the building.
He asked what he did wrong. A PUC staff member responded opaquely: “You know what you did.”
It seems the PUC staff concluded that Pearson intentionally tried to game the ticket system. When the Northern Water Alliance tried to intervene to get Pearson to stay as a consultant, PUC staff said the Alliance’s interests already were “adequately represented by other groups in the process” — a decision that a PUC staff person is not in authority to make.
There have been no public reports of Line 3 advocates getting police escorts from the building.
At a minimum, Tuesday’s actions give the appearance that the PUC staff is biased against water protectors. That bias may be real.
After the dust settles on the Line 3 vote, this issue needs public attention. PUC staff actions set a bad precedent where PUC staff can pick winners and losers in a public process — a problem that needs fixing.