Legislative Auditor Report: PUC has done “poor job” in public engagement

Winona LaDuke: ‘PUC has a systemic blind spot in dealing with Native tribes’

Sierra Club: ‘A bad process leads to bad outcomes’

PUC: ‘Improved public engagement is a priority’

The Minnesota Office of Legislative Auditor released a report today critical of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and its public engagement process. The PUC has done a “poor job” in helping the public engage in its complex review process, it said. Specifically, the PUC was “not adequately prepared” for engaging the public during the controversial Enbridge Line 3 pipeline hearings.

The report makes a number of recommendations, such as directing PUC leadership “to provide more oversight of the agency’s public participation processes” and to “better prepare for cases with significant public interest.” (Summary here.)

The 98-page report disappoints in one aspect: It fails to clearly call out that, at least in the case of the Line 3 hearings, the PUC’s public engagement failures focused on Line 3 opponents. The report doesn’t explicitly name staff bias as a problem that needs addressing, and it does.

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The difficulty of getting a clear answer on the protective coating on Enbridge Line 3’s pipes

One of Enbridge’s pipe storage yards. Photo taken summer, 2017

Last week’s blog raised questions about the safety of the pipes Enbridge plans to use to build a crude oil pipeline across 355 miles of  northern Minnesota. The pipes for Line 3 have sat outside in storage yards for years, exposed to the elements. The pipes have anti-corrosion coating that is supposed to protect them underground, but it’s not good for them to sit outside as the sun can degrade the coating.

It seemed like a reasonable question to ask: “What role do regulators play in assuring the pipe’s protective coating still has its integrity if and when Line 3 is built?

It’s been challenging to get a direct answer. The bottom line seems to be that regulators don’t play a role. They have deferred that responsibility to Enbridge. They just seem reluctant to admit it. Continue reading

A regulatory system gone belly-up: Deconstructing Line 3’s ‘Independent Monitors’

Part of an occasional series which explores how government regulatory agencies are biased towards corporate interests, creating an institutional culture favoring polluters over the public interest.

Line 3 current route (orange) and proposed route (green).

Consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine that a company wanted to build a crude oil pipeline 355 miles through northern Minnesota, crossing some of the state’s cleanest waters. That pipeline would carry tar sands crude oil, a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel and difficult to clean up when it spills.

Imagine that government regulators approved the project, but required the company to pay to hire 10 Independent Environmental Monitors to oversee construction on behalf of the state. These monitors would be the on-the-ground representatives for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other departments.

Imagine — as the pipeline crosses 79 miles of wetlands and more than 200 water bodies — these Independent Monitors would have the authority to stop construction if they saw serious violations that threaten our clean waters.

Now imagine, in an unprecedented move, that government regulators put Tribal Nations and environmental groups in charge of selecting the Independent Monitors and training them. This, the regulators said, would bring more credibility to the process, as it would assure construction would meet the highest possible environmental standards.

What do you think would happen next? Continue reading

An Open Letter to Gov. Walz on Line 3, its public purpose, its costs and benefits, and needed action

Dear Gov. Walz:

Your voice and leadership matter in the debate over the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline.

You have given Minnesotans the impression that you have no authority to intervene. While you can’t snap your fingers and stop the project, you have more power than you’re letting on. You oversee agencies charged with making sure Enbridge meets all state environmental requirements in the pipeline’s construction and operation. You have the bully pulpit to let citizens know your candid views.

Last year, you told Minnesotans that Line 3 needed not just a building permit, but a “social permit.” We need to hear from you the specific conditions Line 3 must meet to secure such a “social permit.” At a minimum, it should include transparency. So far, the Line 3’s public record is both voluminous and technical, often leading to more confusion than clarity. The state needs to make a clear statement, in lay terms that people can understand, about the project’s public purpose and its costs and benefits. We have yet to get such a statement. Citizens deserve it.

I offer the following summary of Line 3’s public purpose, its costs and benefits, and critiques of the process. I also include specific actions you could take that would move this state in a good direction.

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PUC Commissioner makes strong case against Line 3 plan and strengthens legal cases poised to stop it

Commissioner Matt Schuerger.

After years of research, testimony, organizing, letter writing, pleas, protests, and other public pressure by Indigenous Nations, environmental groups and regular citizens, one Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Commissioner came around to vote “no” on Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 tar sands pipeline expansion.

Commissioner Matthew Schuerger’s lone “no” vote Monday didn’t change the outcome; the PUC approved Line 3’s Certificate of Need and Route Permit on 3-1 votes. Significantly, however, Schuerger’s arguments will lend credibility to the pending lawsuits seeking to overturn the PUC’s ill-considered decisions. Continue reading

PUC to offer encore performance of “Ignore the Risk,” starring Enbridge Line 3

PUC’s new mascot? Image courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.

If the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) were to have a mascot it would be the ostrich, its head buried in the sand.

The PUC approved permits for the deeply flawed Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline in 2018. Line 3 would run 340 miles through northern Minnesota, burrowing under the Mississippi headwaters, cutting through state forests, and crossing more than 75 miles of wetlands and more than 200 water bodies.

The PUC ignored Line 3’s climate damage — more severe storms, drought and other impacts — estimated at $287 billion worldwide over three decades. It ignored treaty rights, choosing instead to side with Enbridge’s interpretation of Constitutional law. It ignored experts at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, who said Enbridge had failed to prove the pipeline was needed. It ignored the increased risk of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a risk that would have received serious attention had it affected more affluent communities. It undervalued Line 3’s spill risks to our clean water and wild rice.

According to its own documents, Enbridge openly admits it can’t build Line 3 and meet all of Minnesota’s water quality standards, “given northern Minnesota’s topography and environment (e.g., avoiding wetlands).”

Line 3 opponents filed three major challenges with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The first case challenged Line 3’s environmental impact statement. Last fall, the Minnesota Court of Appeals found the statement inadequate because it failed to consider the impacts of a spill in the Lake Superior Watershed. That seems like a major oversight the PUC should have caught. The state has now patched up the environmental impact statement and the project is going back to the PUC for approval.

And now the stage is set for an encore performance of the PUC’s “Ignore the Risk.” Continue reading

Enbridge, Inc. has a history of trying to shelter assets to avoid liability from major crude oil spills

Did the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission build in adequate financial protections should a new Line 3 crude oil pipeline burst? Minnesotans should worry.

Enbridge Inc., a giant Canadian crude oil pipeline company, has a history of trying to use a corporate shell game to avoid responsibility for the clean-up costs from a major crude oil spill.

Liability coverage is a significant point of contention around the proposed Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota. The proposed 340-mile pipeline route would cross more than 200 waterbodies and pass through more than 75 miles of wetlands, according to project documents. It would pass through and near wild rice beds. It would pass near drinking water sources. The question is: should this pipeline get built, could Enbridge cover clean-up costs from a major spill?

Let’s be clear. A Line 3 spill would be disastrous and impossible to clean up fully. Tar sands crude oil is heavy and sinks, making it difficult to clean up. The tar sands crude is viscous and difficult to pump through pipelines. Producers add toxic chemicals to help the tar sands crude oil flow. A spill would release those toxic additives into the environment. A spill in a fragile ecosystem such as a wild rice bed would do long-term damage.

Money would not solve the spill. Still, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) sought to ensure Enbridge would be on the hook for clean up costs.

It did a poor job.

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Keeping the pressure on PUC, Enbridge to address Line 3’s human trafficking risks

On Wednesday, Sept. 12, Healing Minnesota Stories ran a post critical of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for approving the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline with lax oversight and accountability for the human trafficking risks the massive construction project poses. The post identified problems with how Enbridge was moving forward with its required Human Trafficking Prevention Plan.

Now, three weeks after that post, calls and emails have provided some updates, but suggest no follow up has happened. Continue reading

For a crude oil pipeline carrying 760,000 barrels a day, a “pinhole leak” is bigger than it sounds

Enbridge Line 3 could spill up to 7,600 barrels a day without triggering leak sensors

One of the difficulties writing about the proposed Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline is that one gets buried by thousands of pages of documents, much more than most people have the time to read. There’s testimony, briefing papers, the environmental impact statement, administrative law judge analysis, permit applications, permit decisions, legal appeals … you get the picture.

There are many important stories hidden in these documents. I haven’t scratched the surface. I depend on people who have done the deep dive, people like Nicolette Slagle, Honor the Earth’s research director. She put me onto the “pinhole leak” story. It sounds small enough until you get into the details.

Honor the Earth and its consultant CJE did important work pointing out flaws in Enbridge’s pinhole leak analysis. Stunningly, state regulators failed to acknowledge any of them in Line 3’s final environmental impact statement.

This story is too late to affect change in the Line 3 environmental impact statemenet. But it raises larger questions about state regulators’ ability to effectively review future proposals of similar harmful projects.

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Public Utilities Commission, Enbridge need to go back to square one on Line 3’s Human Trafficking Prevention Plan

When the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the Route Permit for the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline, it required the company to develop a Human Trafficking Prevention Plan for the project’s construction phase.

Enbridge Line 3 is a proposed multi-billion dollar crude oil pipeline project that would run 340 miles through northern Minnesota. Public testimony and the state’s Line 3’s environmental impact statement raised concerns about the connection between the large influx of out-of-state construction workers for the project and increases in drug and sex trafficking along the construction route.

The Human Trafficking Prevention Plan is done, but Enbridge won’t release it. It appears Enbridge failed to engage a key participant — the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force — as the Public Utilities Commission required. Enbridge doesn’t even seem to think the Human Trafficking Prevention Plan is needed as it relates to Line 3.

It’s time to reset this conversation and start over.

A Minnesota Court of Appeals decision has put the Line 3 issue back before the Public Utilities Commission. The Commission now has chance to fix the problems.

Here are six reasons to worry that, without changes, Enbridge’s plan will be inadequate. Continue reading