Pushing Back on the PUC, Part I: Ojibwe Bands Criticize Enbridge’s Rushed Pipeline Promises

This is the first in a series that will review responses to Enbridge’s last-minute promises on its Line 3 pipeline project. The PUC adopted these with no pubic scrutiny. This blog looks at the responses from Native Nations. The next blogs will look at responses from state agencies and an environmental group.

In late June, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was entering its final deliberations on the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. The debate spanned years, including public hearings, an environmental impact statement, and recommendations from an administrative law judge. With a final vote imminent, the PUC changed the rules. It allowed Enbridge to change its proposal after the official record had closed. The PUC accepted Enbridge’s deal sweeteners and voted to approve them without giving regulators or the public a chance to review and critique them.

While Enbridge’s promises might look good on paper that’s no guarantee they will deliver.

Now, predictably, many parties — tribal nations, state agencies and an environmental group — have filed responses to the PUC seeking significant changes. These responses show just how little thought the Commissioners gave to Enbridge’s proposals before giving them the green light. In particular, Enbridge gave no consideration to indigenous rights. While perhaps it’s not surprising that Enbridge tried to game the system, it is disappointing that the PUC went along with it, one more example of its flawed process.

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Judge Takes Sides in Line 3’s Treaty Rights Debate When She Should Have Stayed Neutral

In her recommendations on the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline, Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly took sides on the critical issue of treaty rights when she should have stayed neutral. Instead, she staked out a legal position outside the scope of her work and one detrimental to the Ojibwe Bands.

O’Reilly is not a treaty law expert. More importantly, O’Reilly’s recommendations are meant for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the PUC isn’t going to take a position on treaty rights. It’s beyond the PUC’s scope. O’Reilly should have stayed neutral and articulated the PUC’s predicament: The PUC can’t decide treaty law disputes yet treaty rights are a critical issue underpinning its Line 3 decision. Continue reading

Structural Bias in PUC Review Process of Line 3 Favors Enbridge

Part II of a series looking at Ojibwe Band responses to Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly’s report and recommendations on the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. [Note: Ojibwe and Chippewa are both colonial names for the Anishinaabe. They are used in this story because of their use as official band names.]

The current Line 3 is blue, the proposed reroute is in red. Light green shaded area reflects the “ceded lands” where bands retain rights to hunt, fish and gather.

Federal Indian law and the interpretation of treaties is complicated business; it requires specialized legal training. Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota are pushing back on how Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly interpreted treaty law in her report on the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline, submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilties Commission (PUC).

Some of her interpretations don’t conform with court decisions, Ojibwe bands say.

At issue are Ojibwe treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather in northern Minnesota. In the legal world, these are called “usufructuary rights.” The dispute is over whether Ojibwe bands retained these hunting and fishing rights on lands they ceded by treaty to the U.S. government.

O’Reilly’s effort to interpret treaty law is flawed, and it reflects a major flaw in the Line 3 review process. First, according to her official state profile, O’Reilly doesn’t appear to have Indian law expertise. This is not a knock on O’Reilly; it’s a knock on a system that wasn’t set up to look out for treaty rights. Second, the system pushes resolution of treaty rights disputes to the end of the legal process instead of making them the priority and putting them at the beginning.

The process could just as easily have defended Ojibwe treaty rights and forced Enbridge to overcome that presumption in court before its application process even started.

It’s reasonable to ask why treaty rights issues didn’t receive more attention at the start of the process. The federal Indian Trust responsibility is a U.S. obligation “to protect tribal treaty rights,” according to the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs.

At this point, it’s not happening.

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