PERHAM — An alternative Sandpiper Pipeline route that would pass through the northeast quadrant of Otter Tail County is becoming much more of a possibility after two recent reports appear to have narrowed the list of choices from nine down to just three.
When a potential Sandpiper Pipeline route that would pass through Otter Tail County was announced in August, it wasn’t by any means considered a forerunner in the proposed project to ship oil from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields to Superior, Wisconsin.
However, recent reports indicate that the Otter Tail County route is more likely to be chosen, says a former regional director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who has been closely following the controversial issue.
The proposed SA-03 route would enter Otter Tail County near Perham and exit near Wadena. Enbridge’s route would head east from Grand Forks to Clearbrook, Minnesota, before cutting south past Park Rapids, Minnesota, and then east again toward its final destination in Duluth.
To begin work on the Sandpiper Pipeline, the Canada-based oil company Enbridge needs to receive a certificate of need and a route permit from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which it applied for in November 2013.A certificate of need states there is an actual need for increased energy that can’t be met in other ways, including by alternative routes, according to the Minnesota Public Utility Commission. A route permit allows a company to construct its pipeline along an approved path.
The process has included several series of public hearings, reports from numerous government agencies and activist groups, and even an evidentiary trial to take place next week.
Eight alternative routes have been proposed by outside groups. These routes are currently being studied to determine if any of them would be suitable.
Reports whittle down options
When a proposed pipeline is under review, there are two significant factors that come into play when comparing it to alternative routes: which route fulfills the company’s needs at the lowest cost, and which route presents the least amount of potential harm to the environment and communities in the pipeline’s path.
Adam Heinen, a public utilities rates analyst with the Minnesota Department of Commerce Division of Energy Resources, conducted a review in November 2014 of the initially proposed route along with alternative routes to determine if any alternatives were suitable.
Heinen’s conclusion was that only two of the alternative routes were viable options.
“Based on my review, it is unlikely, absent additional information from the proposers, that the system alternatives, other than SA-03 [the route through Otter Tail County] and modified SA-03, would be able to achieve the claimed need,” Heinen wrote. “These two system alternatives would cost slightly more than the applicant’s preferred corridor; however, the additional costs are unlikely to impact the viability of the project for either uncommitted or committed shippers.”
The Energy Environmental Review and Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Commerce conducted a review into the environmental impacts of the proposed and alternative routes.
The review found that, in general, “there is little difference in the environmental impact of the routes,” the Minnesota Department of Commerce report reads. “All system alternatives would have similar effects on several resource categories including: geology/soils/groundwater, ecoregions, community features, cultural resources, and air emissions.”
Differences between the routes included land cover, water resources, public lands, cities and population density, and high consequence areas, according to the report.
Willis Mattison, who served as a Regional Director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Detroit Lakes before retiring in 2001, has reviewed both these reports and says it is clear that only the applicant route, the SA-03 route, and the modified SA-03 route are going to be under consideration when the Public Utilities Commission makes its route designation later in 2015.
“The Becker, Otter Tail County line has fewer encounters with wetlands, waters and rice beds then the preferred one,” Mattison said, explaining that in his opinion, the SA-03 line is the one most likely to be chosen by the Public Utilities Commission as the final route later this year.
While Mattison described the environmental report as “flawed,” he says the conclusions drawn in it would support the SA-03 route.
In later testimony to the Public Utilities Commission, Heinen said that the environmental report confirmed his belief that Enbridge’s prefered route and the SA-03 route were both acceptable.
“Based on my review of the Environmental Review, I did not identify impacts to the natural or socio-economic environment that would render the applicant’s preferred route or SA-03 unreasonable,” Heinen wrote.
Better route options exist
“It is boiling down to a choice between two very bad routes [the original route and SA-03] instead of a legitimate search for the best possible route,” Mattison said. “Better routes exist, this is intuitively obvious, but the process is being manipulated to discriminate against the better routes in favor of two very bad route choices.”
Mattison says he isn’t opposed to the pipelines in general, he just believes there are many alternative routes which would pose a lesser risk to the environment.
One key issue is the land above the pipelines, he said.
Pipelines that cut through a number of lakes and wetlands make spills both more difficult to locate, and impossible to fully clean up, Mattison said.
“From my experience, recovery of this oil is virtually impossible. You do the best with available technology and you leave the rest and wash your hands and say you did the best that you could,” he said.
Pipelines under agricultural land are better because spills are more easily noticed, and the damage to the environment is more easily corralled, according to Mattison.
Mattison argues that southern routes for the pipeline, which go through areas that are primarily agricultural, should have been under consideration, despite the fact the longer routes would be more costly to build.
Pipeline proponents back initial route
According to an Enbridge spokesperson, the current route proposed by the company, not the route through Otter Tail County, is the best option.
“We believe what we have proposed is the best action for the state of Minnesota,” Enbridge Community Relations Consultant Christine Davis said. “It is the shortest route. It follows existing pipelines. It impacts fewer landowners, and high population areas and effects few natural resources.”
Davis said Enbridge is hopeful its proposed route would be accepted, and said the company would have to weigh its options should one of the alternative routes be selected instead by the Public Utilities Commission.
She says the current situation with eight different alternative routes is much different than past pipeline proposals.
“We have not had another route proposed by entities other than ourselves before,” Davis said.
More than 90 percent of landowners along the initial route, as well as five of the nine counties involved, have signed off on the project, according to Davis.
“Those most directly impacted are supporters and are accepting of the pipeline,” Davis said.
Pipelines a perplexing process
The process began toward the end of 2013, when Enbridge initially applied for the certificate of need and the route permit. The review process began after both applications were deemed substantially complete in February 2014.
Public comments were accepted from January through May 2014 to allow feedback on potential human and environmental impacts and to suggest alternative routes.
After the public comment period, the Department of Commerce, Energy Environmental Review and Analysis Division recommended eight system alternatives for further consideration.
In a September 2014 meeting, the Public Utilities Commission agreed and ruled that a comparative environmental study be conducted on all eight alternative routes.
That study was released in December 2014, and another series of hearings were held in Saint Paul, Duluth, Bemidji, Crookston and St. Cloud in early January on the certificate of need process.
The next step is an evidentiary hearing on the potential routes, which is scheduled next week from Jan. 27 to Jan 30. Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman from the Office of Administrative Hearings will hear testimony from Enbridge, as well as supporters and opponents of the route who have requested to be parties to the proceedings.
Lipman will release a report in April detailing conclusions and recommendations about the certificate of need, considering all the information from reports and public hearings.
The report is non-binding, but will be utilized by the Public Utilities Commission which will likely make its final decision on the certificate of need in June.
If the certificate of need is approved, another round of hearings, public comment periods and trials could take place before the Public Utilities Commission decides which route, if any, to permit.
The Commission has the final authority to determine where pipelines can be placed, according to Dan Wolf of the Public Utilities Commission, who added that the process can still be appealed in the legal system.
Route choice courts controversy
The company’s preferred route for the Sandpiper Pipeline cuts through areas near the Mississippi River headwaters north of Park Rapids, Minnesota, a path that has drawn heat from many environmental groups because of the potential dangers to the environment.
The Bemidji-based organization Honor the Earth is challenging the pipeline project, having filed several motions with the Public Utilities Commission including a suggestion for an alternative route that would follow Interstate 94.
Mattison described the process of changing the Sandpiper Pipeline route as “David versus Goliath.”
The issue, Mattison says, is that the onus for providing alternative routes is on those opposed to the plan, not the company proposing the pipeline or any governmental agencies involved with approving it.
“The cards are stacked against any alternative route,” Mattison said.
Nevertheless, eight alternative routes were proposed, ranging from routes along I-94 to ones cutting south of the Twin Cities.
There were even routes proposed to go straight to Chicago, where Mattison said most of the oil headed to Superior, Wisconsin, will end up anyway.
According to Mattison, though, ordinary citizens and even environmental groups often do not have the financial resources to mount successful challenges to pipeline routes.
“It’s a gargantuan task for lay citizens to mount,” Mattison said. “They have to hire experts, engineers analysts, geologists, biologists, ecologists, and all the experts it would take to prove an alternative route would be better.”
The price for getting an expert witness to testify for a project can range from $70,000 to $100,000, according to Mattison, who added that attorneys’ fees can reach $500,000.
Enbridge, on the other hand, has a virtual army of experts, according to Mattison.
“Citizens are just incapable of matching this type of polish, perfection and professionalism,” he said.
This article was written by Jacob Tellers from Fergus Falls Daily Journal, Minn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.