Minnesota has tried to sweep Enbridge Line 3’s threats under the rug. That needs to change.

This is the second of a two-part critique of the state of Minnesota’s Line 3 decision-making process.

Through years of debate about the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline, citizens of the state of Minnesota have not received a clear, concise statement of if this project is in the public interest, and if so, why. The first part of this series summarized the benefits claimed by Line 3 proponents, and critiques them and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC’s) process.The following summarizes the threats Line 3 poses, and critiques the PUC’s threat assessment.

New Line 3 route.

The Enbridge Line 3 debate generated voluminous public and expert testimony,  reports, environmental impact statements, lawsuits and more. Only well-paid lobbyists and highly-dedicated young people have had the time to keep up with this massive record.

In simple terms, the question is why Minnesota would take on significant risks for a pipeline that doesn’t benefit the state. The Minnesota Department of Commerce says Minnesota and the Upper Midwest are in good shape for oil supply. It says Enbridge failed to show regional oil demand justifies the new pipeline. Commerce took the extraordinary step to sue the PUC to reverse Line 3’s Certificate of Need.

Here are three major risks we’re taking for an unnecessary pipeline.

  1. Climate damage
  2. Threat to clean waters and wetlands
  3. Treaty rights violations

The PUC dismissed them all. Let’s take them in order.

Climate damage: In the words of the great Montgomery “Scottie” Scott, Chief Engineer of the Star Ship Enterprise: “I can’t change the laws of physics!”

Climate damage already is occurring and it’s going to get a lot worse if we don’t do something soon and something drastic. It’s the laws of physics of carbon pollution. That’s really all you need to know about why to say “no” to the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. There is no policy the state of Minnesota could approve that would have as much positive impact on reducing climate change as the simple act of stopping this pipeline.

According to the environmental impact statement, the crude oil carried by Line 3 would create $287 billion in climate damage over three decades. In its original Line 3 Certificate of Need, the PUC acknowledges that impact as “a significant consequence.” It then pivots to dismiss the argument altogether. It cites “assumptions and data limitations” in the various climate damage studies.

The PUC showed an amazing lack of curiosity. It could have asked experts to provide a range of estimates on climate damage. It did not. In taking the approach it did, the PUC effectively replaced Line 3’s $287 billion climate damage estimate with $0.

The PUC also dismissed Line 3 climate damage estimates by arguing that even if it denied the permit, the oil would get to market anyway. The “costs do not result directly from the [Line 3] Project, but instead result from the continued demand for crude oil to produce refined products used by consumer,” the PUC wrote.

That’s like saying we shouldn’t go after the international heroin pipeline because the drug’s going to make it to the streets anyway.

Even if other governments or businesses decide to get Canada’s tar sands oil to market by train, truck, or alternative pipeline, that’s on them. Minnesota leaders need to make the best possible decision for Minnesota. The PUC failed in its leadership, irresponsibly dismissing the climate damage argument altogether without trying to get a more nuanced estimate. The PUC closed its eyes and took a stance favoring Enbridge.

Headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca. (Photo courtesy of Bsstu through Wikimedia Commons.)

Threat to clean water: Line 3 would create environmental threats both in the pipeline’s construction and in its inevitable spills.

Enbridge admits it can’t even build Line 3 and meet all of Minnesota’s water quality standards, “given northern Minnesota’s topography and environment.” Minnesota Rule 6135.1100 says a pipeline route should avoid wetlands, streams,  and areas with high water tables, especially if construction requires excavation. Check, check, and check, all of those are problems.

Line 3 would cross 200-plus streams and other water bodies. It would cross the Mississippi River twice, including the headwaters area. Line 3 would cross 78 miles of wetlands. (To get a visual, its 65 miles from Minneapolis to St. Cloud. Imagine driving from Minneapolis to St. Cloud and the whole time you are going through wetlands — and there’s thirteen miles more of wetlands after that. So much for Line 3 avoiding wetlands.)

Regarding Line 3’s spills, its environmental impact statement spends a lot of time discussing water and environmental risks, but in vague and technical terms and tables. From all that information, the public gets no tangible sense of what would happen if Line 3 had a major oil spill.

Line 3 is going through Minnesota’s cleanest waters. All pipelines leak. You can imagine a worst-case scenario. The PUC could not. It showed little concern that the construction of Line 3 couldn’t meet the state’s environmental standards. It disregarded Enbridge’s spill history. On this critical issue, in spite of predictable state rules violations, the PUC closed its eyes and took a stance favoring Enbridge.

Treaty rights and other Indigenous impacts: Anishinaabe bands say Line 3 violates their treaty-protected rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands they ceded to the U.S. government. A spill could kill wild rice and medicinal plants critical to the Anishinaabe culture. The arrival of large construction crews could lead to an increase in Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

There was strong evidence in the Line 3 record that these treaty rights were valid.

The PUC gave no attention to treaty rights, using a shameful pretense to approve Line 3. The PUC argued that it was the wrong venue to litigate treaty rights. That part’s true. It’s up to a federal court. Yet the PUC took a position that it could approve the Line 3 permits without requiring the issue to be resolved by the appropriate court. It could just as easily have approved Line 3 conditionally, requiring a federal court to resolve the treaty dispute first.

Instead, on this critical Constitutional issue of treaty rights, where the PUC lacked expertise to make an informed decision, it closed its eyes and took a position favoring Enbridge.

The approach runs counter to the Walz administration’s Executive Order acknowledging Tribal Nations’ “right to existence, self-govern, and possess self-determination.” The media release read:

“This order ensures the State of Minnesota and the eleven tribes engage in true government-to-government relationships built on respect, understanding, and sovereignty,” said Governor Walz. “We are committed to meaningful consultation with the tribal communities in our state.” (Emphasis in original.)

It’s a wonderful executive order. A fair reading of the Line 3 record shows that the Anishinaabe nations did not have “meaningful consultation” in this process.

It bears repeating. The PUC in particular and the state in general has failed miserably in stating a clear public purpose for Line 3 and clearly explaining its costs and benefits to the public, forcing litigation.

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