MINNEAPOLIS — A Canadian company proposes a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline through some of the Midwest’s prized lakes and wetlands, igniting a firestorm among environmentalists, tribes and anti-fossil fuel activists who say the proposal is built on hollow promises of economic development and dubious claims of environmental protection.
Sound familiar? It should. But the pipeline isn’t Keystone XL, and its developer is not TransCanada Corp., purveyor of the most polarizing energy project since the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.
It is called Sandpiper, and its developer is Enbridge Corp., another Calgary, Alberta-based conglomerate whose extensive oil and gas pipeline network plunges deep into the U.S. interior.
The $2.6 billion Sandpiper project, which would move 225,000 barrels of crude per day roughly 610 miles from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to an Enbridge hub in Superior, Wis., has been approved by North Dakota regulators. But it remains under administrative review in Minnesota, where developers are seeking a certificate of need to ship the oil and a route permit to build the pipeline across 300 miles of the state’s Lakes Belt.
An administrative law judge in St. Paul next week is expected to issue an advisory opinion that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will use to resolve some thorny questions around Sandpiper, including whether the line is necessary and what route it should follow to move Bakken crude across Minnesota to Wisconsin, where it would flow to other Enbridge lines serving refineries in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.
Enbridge’s subsidiary, North Dakota Pipeline Co., argues that the new line is necessary to meet growing demand for crude by those refineries, and it has secured contracts from a number of shippers to use the line, according to Enbridge officials. Those offtakers include Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum Corp., which in 2013 agreed to become Sandpiper’s "anchor shipper" while also becoming a co-investor, shouldering 37.5 percent of the line’s cost.
Marathon’s president and CEO, Gary Heminger, has said the Sandpiper investment will give Marathon a 27 percent stake in Enbridge’s North Dakota pipeline system once the line is completed and provide "additional access to growing crude oil production from the Bakken Shale play and Canada, and direct participation in the transportation of these crudes into our markets."
The opening of a new corridor through Minnesota will also help Enbridge manage aging infrastructure along its existing pipeline route through the Upper Great Lakes, known as the Lakehead System. Currently, six existing pipelines, some built as early as the 1950s, follow the Lakehead System route from a key Enbridge oil terminal in Clearbrook, in northwest Minnesota, to the cities of Bemidji and Grand Rapids before dipping south to Duluth and Superior.
Clearbrook is also the primary U.S. hub on Enbridge’s system for delivering Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta into the United States, and Enbridge has invested heavily in recent years to upgrade those lines, including adding new pump stations in Minnesota that will push up to 800,000 barrels per day of heavy Canadian crude to U.S. refineries.
Moreover, if Sandpiper is approved, Enbridge has said it will pursue another set of state permits to relocate one of its key Lakehead pipelines, known as Line 3, that was built in 1968 and is in need of retirement. Rather than rebuild Line 3 in its existing corridor, Enbridge has said it would prefer to relocate the line along the Sandpiper route at a cost of roughly $2.3 billion.
But environmental opposition, combined with lengthy regulatory proceedings, sagging oil prices and a troubling history of spills, including an 840,000-gallon contamination of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, have created considerable hurdles for Enbridge as it tries to push through one of its most ambitious U.S. pipeline expansions in recent memory.
The stakes — for Enbridge, for its U.S. customers, and for residents and tribes in North Dakota and Minnesota — are high. If the Sandpiper line is built, the company says, millions of barrels of Bakken crude will be moved more safely and cheaply across northern Minnesota, while at the same time alleviating rail corridor congestion and reducing the risk of rail accidents like the Dec. 30, 2013, fiery collision between a derailed grain train and 108-car oil train near Casselton, N.D., resulting in 400,000 gallons of spilled crude and the evacuation of 1,400 residents.
Dealing with the ‘Keystone effect’
Currently, more than two-thirds of the North Dakota’s oil exports are shipped by rail using tanker cars, according to federal estimates, many of which lack the kind of safety features that have been proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and could become law later this year. More recent rail accidents, including oil train derailments in West Virginia and Illinois, have further pressured the oil and gas industry, railroads and government officials to find alternatives to shipping oil across long distances by rail and truck.
But if shipping crude by rail has come under tough scrutiny from the public and regulators, pipelines have fared little better, as evidenced by the industry’s track record of spills — estimated at 1,400 "significant incidents" since 1986 — and the deep political fissure over Keystone XL, which after years of languishing under a State Department review succumbed to a presidential veto in February after Republicans in Congress sought to approve the line legislatively.
The "Keystone effect," as some have called it, goes beyond concerns about pipeline safety and routing to incorporate a broad suite of environmental issues, among them fossil fuel dependency and oil consumption’s contribution to greenhouse gases that drive climate change.
Al Monaco, Enbridge’s president and CEO, addressed some of those challenges in a speech to business executives in Minneapolis late last month.
"Solving infrastructure problems at its base is not rocket science," he told the Minnesota-Canada Business Council, stressing the advanced technologies and materials deployed by industry to site new oil pipelines, inspect existing lines, and detect problems early and respond quickly.
The bigger challenge, Monaco said, stems from organized opposition to traditional energy resources and even some renewable resources such as wind turbines, and "the elevation of regional energy projects to a national policy debate."
"This isn’t just short-term noise," Monaco said. "Today, our regulators, our political leaders, our employees and the public, they expect more of energy companies. They want to know what we’re doing to continually improve, to get better."
Working around the ‘Lakes Belt’
For critics like Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, "getting better" means several things, including acknowledging mistakes and correcting operational problems that cast doubt on Enbridge’s safety track record, including the record 2010 spill in Michigan, where cleanup remains a work in progress after $1 billion spent.
Hoffman and her client, the nonprofit group Friends of the Headwaters, also want Enbridge to explore alternatives to its preferred Sandpiper route, which crosses northern Minnesota’s "Lakes Belt," a region dense in lakes, streams, wetlands and forest. To date, the company has refused to look at alternatives, saying its chosen Sandpiper route offers the best conditions, both environmentally and economically, for the line to make its way from an existing oil terminal in Clearbrook to its terminus at Duluth-Superior.
Hoffman, who has petitioned the Minnesota Court of Appeals to force a more detailed environmental review of Sandpiper than what is required by the PUC, said her client is not seeking to simply block the Sandpiper line from being constructed. Rather, she wants Enbridge to more fully examine the preferred route’s impacts to natural areas and weigh those findings against alternative routes that run along more developed corridors.
"Our position is that the proposed route is probably one of the worst locations in the state of Minnesota to run a pipeline," she said.
Similar concerns were raised by Minnesota’s two environmental agencies — the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — prompting the PUC last September to take an unprecedented step of asking for more information on alternative routes.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce provided a detailed report on six alternatives last December, but Enbridge maintains that none is viable because all are longer, are more expensive to build and do not pass through its terminal at Clearbrook, a critical element of the project.
"The fundamentals behind the project call for leveraging the existing infrastructure that’s already in place," Paul Eberth, Enbridge’s Wisconsin-based Sandpiper project manager, said in a telephone interview. "By going to Clearbrook and then to Superior, we can make connections to customers without having to build a new line all the way down to the southern part of the state," as most of the alternatives propose.
‘Oil companies are asking too much of our state’
But opponents of Sandpiper in its current configuration say southern Minnesota, where farming and urbanization have already altered much of the natural landscape, is exactly where new oil pipelines belong.
Among those pushing for a re-route are members of the state’s 40,000-person Ojibwe tribe, also known as the Chippewa or Anishinaabe, whose leaders maintain that the Sandpiper project threatens to foul northern Minnesota’s pristine waters with oil and disrupt traditional activities such as wild rice harvesting that are central to Native American life in the Great Lakes region.
Frank Bibeau, an attorney and member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, whose reservation extends across three northern Minnesota counties, said in an interview that Enbridge has failed to examine such impacts in its Sandpiper routing decision. Moreover, the company continues to maintain that the pipeline does not physically cross tribal lands and therefore does not violate the tribe’s rights.
"We beg to differ with them on that point, and strongly," said Bibeau, who maintains that the tribe’s treaty rights extend beyond reservation boundaries when dealing with traditional activities like wild rice harvesting.
Honor the Earth, a national activist group led by White Earth member Winona LaDuke, the former Green Party vice presidential candidate, has also pressed state officials, including Gov. Mark Dayton (D), to force a reconsideration of Sandpiper’s current route and issue a moratorium on any new pipeline development in the state’s lakes region.
"Oil companies are asking too much of our state," LaDuke wrote in a letter to the governor. "While we remain a fossil fuel economy at present, sending one new pipeline … across the beautiful North Country is wrong and is not a good move for Minnesota."
The group has taken its message public, too, with colorful roadside billboards and horseback rallies in hamlets like Backus, Minn., where the pipeline is proposed to cross an arterial highway just south of the Corner Store Restaurant & Gun Shop, a local gathering spot.
On a recent afternoon, Dave Sheley, the Corner Store’s owner and proprietor for 18 years, said the Sandpiper project has been a regular topic of conversation, both pro and con, among patrons of his cafe.
He described Backus and surrounding Pine County as "a poor community in general with a rich sub-community of cabin owners," many of whom trek north on weekends from the Twin Cities to fish, swim, boat, bicycle or hunt in the region that otherwise has little happening economically.
While some are encouraged by Enbridge’s promise of 1,500 construction jobs and an estimated $25 million in new annual tax revenue, others say such benefits are countered by the intrusion of a major oil pipeline and the long-term risk of an accident or spill.
Sheley said he has seen a smattering of new business from surveyors and consultants working along the corridor route, which parallels an electricity transmission line. But he also knows that any surge in business during the line’s construction would be temporary, and the greatest economic benefit will go to landowners who have cut deals with Enbridge to route the pipeline across their property.
"I don’t own any land where they want to build, so I don’t have skin in the game," he said. "For the most part, I’d say those people tend to be the most positive about it. But I can also see why the cabin owners and naturalist groups are concerned. A spill would be a big bummer if it happened."