Four Takeaways from Day 3 of PUC Line 3 Hearings

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) met Tuesday for its third full day reviewing the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline proposal. Here are four takeaways.

1. Enbridge’s last-minute concessions diverted the conversation.

Enbridge’s late offer to sweeten the deal seems to have worked, distracting the PUC on proposals that have not been vetted. In May and June, Enbridge put a number of new proposals on the table to make their plan more attractive, including:

  • A “Landowner Choice Program” that would allow landowners (including state, county, and tribal land) to request removal of the old pipeline instead of leaving it in the ground.
  • Committing $100 million to hire Native American workers and businesses for the Line 3 project.
  • Creating a trust fund to decommission old pipelines.
  • Offering a guarantee by its parent company, Enbridge Inc., to ensure cleanup in the event of a spill.

Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa attorney Seth Bichler objected to Enbridge’s last-minute plan, noting it hadn’t been reviewed as part of the Environmental Impact Statement or the Administrative Law Judge’s report. Many questions remain about this thin-on-details proposal.

For instance, the Landowner Choice Program sounds good, but might not get many takers. That’s because Enbridge will offer landowners a cash payment (amount undisclosed) to allow the company to leave the pipeline in the ground like it wants. That might be good for the landowner, but not good for the state long term.

The Native jobs program is a big question mark. Tribal representatives said Enbridge had not consulted them about it. White Earth and Red Lake attorney Joe Plummer questioned whether there was capacity to hire that many local Native workers.

The Cleanup Guarantee sounds good on paper. The state had signed a similar agreement with Enbridge on the Sandpiper pipeline (which never got built). Today, however, the Department of Commerce is more skeptical of the idea.  Bill Grant, deputy commissioner of energy and telecommunications, said the state was a “babe in the woods” when it inked that deal. If it’s to be done again, he wants stronger guarantees that the state would be protected.

Comment: This all gets back to a criticism this blog made before: If Enbridge were serious about these proposals, it would have offered them on the front end and got feedback. Enbridge’s proposal seemed to succeed in diverting the conversation away from whether or not Line 3 is needed and focus more on what contingencies to require once it is approved.

2. Route plans being considered: All choices bad.

While the PUC will not consider voting on a route until it makes a decision on whether the Line 3 project is needed or not, the commission began a conversation on possible routes. Some commissioners began tipping their cards and talking about their preferences. Enbridge’s preferred route did not have a lot of visible support. Commissioner Katie Sieben said she came in with a preference to the in-trench replacement plan, Commissioner John Tuma pushed for a route alternative that would avoid threatening Big Sandy Lake, a sacred site to the Ojibwe.

Tribes were repeatedly put on the spot to choose among different pipeline route options — not for their preference, but for which one was least onerous to them. Commissioner Dan Lipschultz asked several times: “If you had to make a choice, which one would you make?” Bichler expressed frustration that he lacked the detailed analysis of the different routes to make informed decisions, even if he wanted to.

Comment: Expect more conversation on route alternatives today.

3. Climate Change has not received much attention so far.

The Line 3 environmental impact statement estimates the social costs of carbon (more storms, impacts on agriculture, etc.) at $287 billion over 30 years. That’s a big number.

Comment: The PUC needs to wrestle with it soon. It will be telling if it avoids the issue.

4. The Commission probably won’t get to a final vote on Wednesday as planned. The Commissioners still have more questions for intervenors and hasn’t started its own deliberations. Expect a vote Thursday or Friday.

Star Tribune story here: PUC making its way through the issues in the controversial Enbridge pipeline case.

 

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