ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Supporters of the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline told an administrative law judge Monday that it will provide a safer and more efficient alternative to the trains that now carry most of the crude from the Bakken fields of North Dakota, while opponents said the project will exacerbate climate change.
About 302 miles of the proposed 616-mile pipeline would cut across northern Minnesota, transporting light crude from western North Dakota to the Enbridge oil terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. It would be built by the North Dakota Pipeline Co. LLC, a joint venture between Enbridge Energy Partners and Marathon Petroleum. The judge, Eric Lipman, is taking testimony for and against the project this week. His report and recommendations are due April 15. The final say on whether to grant a certificate of need will be up to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which is expected to decide in June.
Enbridge officials testified as the first of five hearings kicked off Monday that the $2.6 billion pipeline would safely carry around 225,000 barrels of oil per day that now travel mostly by rail. The company also says the Sandpiper project would create about 1,500 construction jobs and generate about $25 million a year in property taxes for the counties along the route.
"We feel that it is more efficient, and safer, and a better means of transportation, to put that in a pipe," project director Paul Eberth said.
But climate change activists said the PUC should reject Sandpiper. They said the oil should stay in the ground and that the focus should be on developing renewable energy that doesn't generate greenhouse gases. Opponents also said the danger of disastrous spills is too high, despite Enbridge's assurances.
"What is the wise way to handle this resource? Turn on more spigots so we can gulp it up faster like pigs at a trough? Or lean back a little so we can sip it and save some for our children in the future," Minneapolis resident Ruth Lindh said.
The main issues before Lipman and the PUC are whether the project is needed and whether reasonable alternatives exist. If the PUC grants the certificate of need, the PUC would have to decide in a separate set of proceedings whether the pipeline should follow Enbridge's proposed route. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources have asked the PUC to consider alternative routes that would skirt lakes and sensitive wetlands in northern Minnesota.
Similar hearings are also scheduled in Duluth, Bemidji, Crookston and St. Cloud.
The applause from Monday's crowd of around 200 appeared to be roughly evenly split between Sandpiper supporters and opponents. Unions that want jobs and farm groups that want to reduce congestion on the region's rail network were among the most visible proponents.
Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, said his group represents 150 grain elevators that have had problems getting enough rail cars to take their grain to market. He pointed to a recent University of Minnesota study that concluded that rail delays from all causes including oil trains has cost the state's farmers $100 million.
Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte, of Coon Rapids, said rail traffic through his city has doubled in the last six months, typically from mile-long oil trains. He recalled a recent traffic accident there in which three people were injured. He said an oil train blocking a crossing prevented police, firefighters and paramedics from reaching the scene for several critical minutes. He said getting the oil off trains and into pipelines would make communities on railroads much safer.