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House panel advances bill to allow construction on controversial pipeline

Environmentalist Winona LaDuke testifies before the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee March 27 in opposition to a bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Fabian, right, that would authorize pipeline construction and routing. Photo by Andrew VonBank

The years-long debate on whether to replace Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota could be coming to an end a little sooner than expected.

The state has been reviewing this controversial project since 2015, with the Public Utilities Commission expected to make its final decision this summer on whether to allow the replacement.

But a bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau) would end that ongoing process by authorizing construction of the 337-mile pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada, across northern Minnesota, to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wisc.

HF3759 would allow Enbridge to build the pipeline “at its sole discretion” along the route that it proposed in its application.

After a contentious debate in a packed House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee Tuesday, the committee approved the bill on a split-voice vote and sent it to the House Floor. Its companion, SF3510, sponsored by Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound), is awaiting action by the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

Fabian stressed he sponsored this bill because it’s what his constituents in northwestern Minnesota want, adding the pipeline replacement project will create jobs and provide an economic boost. He said he’s doing something now so he can show his constituents he did all he could to bring the pipeline to Minnesota.

“This bill is a proactive move to correct a problem and bring some jobs and economic stability to the northern part of the state,” said Rep. Jim Newberger (R-Becker), noting he’s seen a pattern from different state agencies to wait to make a decision until after the Legislature adjourns.

Rep. Dave Baker (R-Willmar) expressed his support of the bill and mentioned public safety as an issue, saying if the pipeline doesn’t happen, oil isn’t going to stop moving.

“My concern is if the pipeline didn’t happen, we’ve got an extra 10 trainloads, trains going through every day at 35-40 mph, because I would be very much afraid of what could happen then too. Nothing that we have is guaranteed to be always safe,” Baker said, adding that no one in the room wants to see oil getting into the environment and ruining Minnesota’s lakes.


Bill would ‘circumvent’ the system, critics say

Opponents of the bill criticized it for not allowing Line 3 to finish the Public Utilities Commission’s process, with environmentalist Winona LaDuke saying the bill would “entirely circumvent” the system.

More than 20 people testified against the bill, with no one from the public speaking in support.

“This is a pretty simple bill. It just proposes to remove a proposed project out of an existing process at about five minutes to midnight, and immediately give a green light to a very specific tar sands crude oil pipeline,” said Kathy Hollander, a volunteer with MN350 Climate Solutions. She was among the many people asking the Legislature to respect the process for determining whether Line 3 should be built.

Commerce Commissioner Jessica Looman laid out a few reasons why the administration opposes the bill. Among them: it would negate the process of determining the best route for the pipeline; it doesn’t address oil spills or oil cleanups; it doesn’t require a certificate of need, so Minnesotans may end up with a pipeline that’s not needed; and the commission took testimony on the pipeline, so it’s in the best position to make a decision on whether it should be built.

Opponents mentioned the environmental and tribal impacts the new pipeline could have, and some said if the bill passes, it would bring the pipeline protests that happened at Standing Rock in North Dakota to Minnesota.

Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls) questioned what the process would be if the bill passes and “cultural sites” are found along the route that had been damaged by Enbridge. He noted the Legislature created the process for a reason – to let the scientists make the decision, not lawmakers who aren’t qualified.

Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul) said Enbridge Energy had said the bill wasn’t its idea and  was happy to wait for the Public Utilities Commission’s decision this summer.

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