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Enbridge argues for northern Minnesota pipeline as protesters say ‘No’

Enbridge Energy told regulators Wednesday that its proposed $2.6 billion pipeline across northern Minnesota is needed to carry North Dakota’s oil, can be operated safely and likely will reduce the frequency of oil trains across the state.

“First and foremost the project will benefit Minnesota’s rail system, both its efficiency and its safety,” said Enbridge attorney Christine Brusven before a packed session of the state Public Utilities Commission. “Pipelines have lower cost, fewer service disruptions and fewer discharges of oil than rail.”

Shortly before regulators began hearing arguments for and against the project, about 100 anti-pipeline protesters gathered outside the PUC offices in St. Paul urging that it be rejected.

Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper crude oil pipeline faces a turning point this week with the PUC scheduled to vote Friday on whether the project is needed. Environmental groups who oppose the line get their chance to argue Wednesday afternoon.

Karen Durfee of Cloquet drove to St. Paul to protest the project, and carried a sign that said “We need our lakes” on one side and “Oil spills, oil kills” on the other. Durfee said she is concerned about lakes and rivers on and near her reservation, Fon-du-Lac, which is near the proposed pipeline route, but not directly crossed by it.

“There is a lot of wildlife and streams that go down to Lake Superior, and they could end up polluting all of that,” Durfee said.

Workers who stand to get most of the 2,500 construction-related jobs on the project turned out in support, but didn’t stage a rally. Members of one union made their presence known by wearing identical bright-orange shirts and taking every seat in two rows of the hearing room.

In her argument, Brusven said Enbridge can operate the pipeline safely and has learned lessons from the disastrous 2010 oil spill in Marshall, Mich., that has cost more than $1 billion to clean up.

“The project benefits Minnesota,” she said. “It benefits its economy, its energy supply and public safety.”

Related: Enbridge: Bakken pipeline to be completed by 2017

Enbridge, she said, has chosen a route across northern Minnesota that poses the least risk to the environment.

Under questioning by commissioners, Brusven said Enbridge can’t say for sure that crude-by-rail shipments will decline if Sandpiper is built, but that it is likely. Up to 50 oil trains pass through Minnesota each week because North Dakota relies on rail to transport most of its oil to market.

“There is demand for takeaway capacity out of the Bakken,” she added.

Even if the PUC approves the Certificate of Need for the pipeline, Enbridge faces a separate, monthslong review of its preferred route.

That route would take a Z-shaped path, running east from the North Dakota border into Clearbrook, then south toward Park Rapids following existing crude oil pipelines and east to Superior, partly along a transmission line. North Dakota has approved its part of the 610-mile pipeline.

The project would carry oil from the Bakken to Enbridge’s Superior oil terminal that connects to other pipelines serving refineries in the Midwest and East. Marathon Oil Co., which is financing 37 percent of the project, plans to upgrade three refineries in Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky to process the oil.

Environmental groups and state agencies have pointed to the risk of spills in a region filled with isolated wetlands and lakes that support wild rice and walleye. Opponents to the northern Minnesota route suggested six alternatives south of many pristine lakes. But those routes also are longer, more costly and closer to people and water supplies. An administrative judge who reviewed the alternates rejected them.

“Everyone agrees that an oil spill in Aitkin County or Carlton County would be very bad,” wrote Judge Eric Lipman, who in April recommended that the PUC approve the Certificate of Need. “Whether it would be better, or less likely, for a pipeline to break in another community, nobody can say for sure.”

Enbridge, based in Calgary, operates the longest crude oil pipeline system in the world, delivering 2.2 million barrels of crude oil daily in the United States and Canada. It operates eight petroleum pipelines in Minnesota.

Some opponents, like 350.org, are climate activists who oppose crude oil pipelines as a necessary step toward to address climate change caused by fossil fuels. Honor the Earth, an organization led by activist Winona LaDuke, has asserted the project’s threat to wild rice lakes violates historic Indian treaties. Lipman rejected that argument, but the group says it will pursue a challenge in federal court, where other treaty cases have been decided.

“It is time to move on to the post-petroleum era,” LaDuke said at the rally this morning.

Activists plan a larger rally on Saturday in St. Paul to protest Enbridge’s plans for a second crude oil pipeline along the Sandpiper route. That project is a replacement and upgrade of an existing pipeline, called Line 3, that carries Canadian tar sands oil to Superior, Wis.

The pipeline projects also have many supporters, and they exceeded the number of opponents at some earlier public hearings.

This article was written by DAVID SHAFFER from Star Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.