Canadian energy giant Enbridge now has gained two court rulings allowing work to proceed on its disputed $2.6-billion Minnesota oil pipeline replacement project, but political actions could still cloud completion of Line 3 work amid President Joe Biden’s first-day decision last month to cancel the cross-border Keystone XL line.
Precision Pipeline, a unit of U.S. contractor MasTec, began construction Dec. 1 on the Enbridge Minnesota section. The rulings upheld two denials in December by state regulators to halt construction. Nearby tribes and environmental group opponents want the Biden administration to stop all work by revoking its federal water-crossing permit.
But new controversy is arising over the Keystone-XL cancellation, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) , chaiirman of the Senate Energy Committee, asking Biden to reverse his project halt in a Feb. 9 letter, with a similar request also that day from 14 Republican attorneys general, who say the decision threatens "devastating damage" to communities and add that they are weighing new "legal options." Legislation from Republicans to counteract the president's order also have been introduced in the Senate and House.
In the Enbridge case, the U.S. court found Feb. 8 that “the balance of harms and public interest considerations to be a close call,” but noted “persuasive evidence” from the US Army Corps of Engineers that using the old pipeline would be a bigger safety and enviironmental risk.
An Enbridge spokeswoman said project review included a 13,500-page environmental impact statement and 320 route modifications. Canada’s Natural Resources Ministry supports the project, said a spokesman.
Enbridge said in a statement it is “not surprised” by the Feb. 3 decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reject a request by two Ojibwe tribes to halt construction of a 337-mile section of line in the northern part of the state in a replacement and modernization of the1960s-era Alberta to Wisconsin carrier. The ruling upheld two project halt denials in December by the state public utilities commission.
Line 3 stretches nearly 1,100 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, across the border to a terminal in Superior, Wis. The entire replacement is an estimated $9-billion project.
Precision Pipeline, a unit of Coral Gables, Fla.-based contractor MasTec, began work began Dec. 1 on the Minnesota section, with the Line 3 overhaul already completed on the Canadian side and in other U.S. sections.
“It’s up the Biden Administration to cancel this project once and for all,” said Margaret Levin, state director of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, in a statement.
A group of Minnesota state lawmakers. in an op-ed in the Star Tribune newspaper, called on Biden to do this by “directing the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the project's water crossing permit,” referring to its Nationwide-12 federal permit.
Biden has not publicly commented on the case, and an administration spokesperson did not directly respond to a Feb. 4 press briefing question on the Minnesota court decision.
However, a move to cancel Line 3 would likely cause more public disagreement with Canada's government.
“We support the Line 3 Replacement Project, and construction is complete on the Canadian side. It will improve the integrity of the pipeline network, reduce the transportation of oil by rail and on public roads, and increase environmental safety,” said Ian Cameron, a spokesman for Canadian Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan. “We look forward to working with the Secretary of Energy in the U.S. on strengthening North American energy security and other issues.”
He added that “Canada’s strong climate plan and regulatory regime ensure Canadian products flowing through this pipeline are produced to the highest environmental standards.”
Related to the Keystone XL decision, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is expected to seek compensation under still-existing provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement related to the province's $1.2-billion investment last year in the project. That agreement was replaced in the Trump administration by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement. But according to observers, such a claim requires involvement of project owner TC Energy, and could be a difficult proceeding.
Juli Kellner, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said “Replacing Line 3 is a safety and maintenance ... pipeline improvement that will protect Minnesota’s waters and the environment for decades to come. It is also the most studied pipeline project in state history.”
She said project environmental review has included 70 public hearings, a 13,500-page Environmental Impact Statement, four separate analyses by independent administrative law judges, and 320 route modifications in response to stakeholder input and reviews.
While work is set to finish by the end of 2021, the two courts have yet to hear the merits of the tribes' cases, with oral arguments set for March in the state court.
Joe Plumer, attorney for Red Lake Nation, said in a statement, it is "very disappointed that the Minnesota court places more weight on the employment of out of town pipeline workers than it does on the irreparable harm that construction causes" to the region's environment.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Minnesota's safety and health agency confirmed Feb. 5 that its probe continues into the Dec. 18 death of Jorge Villafuerte III, a Utah-based union pipeline worker employed on the project by Precision Pipeline, who was killed in a construction yard forklift collision.
The Atkins Country Sheriff's office, in its initial report, said it was an accident with no criminal wrongdoing.