Bakken Oil Pipeline Would Bisect Minnesota, Cross 144 Waterways

Enbridge says it consulted with regulatory agencies and communities for a year and a half to select the best route, which faces intense public opposition.

Graphic credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News

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Retired first grade teacher Beth Baker-Knuttila has so much she wants to tell the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission about why adding an oil pipeline near her beloved Portage Lake isn’t a good idea.

On Thursday she’ll have just three minutes to try to convince the PUC to reject a proposed Enbridge, Inc. pipeline that would cut across 144 lakes, streams and rivers, and skirt the shores of the Park Rapids lake that has been her home for 35 years.

The 616–mile Sandpiper pipeline is one of the first major pipelines designed to carry crude oil out of the booming Bakken Shale region of North Dakota. 

It will begin in the northwest corner of North Dakota and cross into Minnesota then pass 299 miles through the heart of the state to Superior, Wisc. Once running, it could carry nearly 10 million gallons of crude oil a day—an estimated 20 percent of the oil produced in the Bakken—to refineries in the Midwest and East and Canada.

“There’s just so much at stake here,” Baker-Knuttila said. “It’s not just about my home. It’s about protecting the beautiful natural resources against some tragic accident.”

Baker-Knuttila shares the fears of others residents and some local officials that a potential spill could poison the many small aquifers that feed the water supply in the regions crossed by the pipeline. Pristine lakes and streams that support summer tourism could be ruined, she said.

She also frets that the pipeline route is so remote, crossing 28 isolated streams and wetlands, that clean-up would be difficult if a spill were to happen.

Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said the company has worked with regulatory and environmental agencies, communities and landowners for the last year and a half to identify the best route.

“Enbridge’s Sandpiper Pipeline route was selected based on several factors—most importantly, impacts to people and the environment—and we believe that it is the best route,” Springer said.

Other considerations Springer said the company factored in when identifying the route included fewer people living along the pipeline’s path and fewer roads and railroads to cross.

The route proposed by Enbridge has already passed an initial review by the state’s Department of Commerce, the agency responsible for analyzing pipeline routes for environmental harm and other matters.

Yet the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has faulted the proposed route, saying it “shows a significantly higher potential for environmental damage” than other possible routes. It is asking for a detailed risk analysis of the proposed route that assesses the potential for leaks, how much oil might be spilled, and how it could affect groundwater, surface water and aquatic life.

The PUC will make the ultimate decision on the Sandpiper route next year. Following the August 7 hearing, the commission will decide whether to ask for further study of the proposed route, require modifications to the route or seek reviews of alternative routes.

Enbridge, a Calgary, Canada-based company that claims to be the largest oil pipeline company in North America, proposed the $2.6 billion Sandpiper last year, saying the project would increase U.S oil independence and provide a vital link between the Bakken shale oil fields and refineries. Much of the oil from the region is now being transported by railroad takers that are coming under increasing scrutiny after a series of fiery accidents.

The North Dakota section of the pipeline was given the go-ahead in June by the North Dakota Public Service Commission. Federal regulators recently gave the project the green light.

Enbridge said it expects to complete construction of the pipeline by 2016.

Agency Endorsement No Surprise

The proposed route through Minnesota is being opposed not only by individuals like Baker-Knuttila but by more than a dozen environmental and civic groups; local and county officials; and hundreds of residents who have submitted comments critical of the project to state regulators. Rep. Richard Nolan, a Democrat whose district would be crossed by the proposed pipeline, also has weighed in, urging caution.

Richard Smith, president of Friends of the Headwaters, an environmental organization, said he is faced with choreographing his PUC presentation to highlight both a factual basis for rejecting the route while conveying his passion for the lakes and rivers he loves.

“There has to be a balance between the facts and the emotion,” said Smith, who refers to the Sandpiper project as the Sand Viper in casual conversation.

Smith said he will tell the commission that the proposed pipeline route skirts some of the clearest lakes in the state, based on the Census of Water Clarity study by the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center; crosses an area with the highest susceptibility for groundwater contamination; and crosses areas that are 20 to 40 percent wetlands.

Much of the land along the Enbridge-designed route is permeable and described by opponents as being as porous as beach sand so that any spills would quickly be absorbed and find its way into underground water sources.

It’s against the backdrop of the 2010 Enbridge spill of more than one million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River that Smith worries about Minnesota waterways. A Sandpiper leak into a lake or stream could have drastic consequences because so many are interconnected, meaning the oil would spill from one into another, he said.

After receiving the Enbridge application last year, the Minnesota PUC referred the application to the state’s Department of Commerce for study and a recommendation back to the PUC.

Although the Commerce Department was presented with more than 60 proposals to reroute the line—from small corrections to avoid farm fields to wholesale deviations of miles to bypass lakes—it endorsed Enbridge’s route while backing further study of just two alternatives. (The PUC could decide to review some of the other alternatives at its hearing Thursday.)

“What you have is an agency that is charged with boosting the state’s business making a recommendation on the pipeline’s route though sensitive wetlands and across pristine lakes and stream instead of the state’s environmental agency,” Smith said.

“So it’s not surprising that the recommendation was to proceed with the Enbridge plan.”

Commerce department spokeswoman Anne O’Connor said she could not discuss the specifics of its recommendations because the final route has not been finalized.

Dan Wolf, the PUC’s assistant executive secretary, said the commission still has much to consider before making a final decision. Additional input from the public, Enbridge and other agencies will be collected and reviewed, he said.

“The commission will not make any decisions on the underlying merits of these applications until that comprehensive record is complete,” Wolf said.

Minnesota rules require that the route proposed by Enbridge must be considered along with any other routes that the commission selects for further study.

Present Versus Future

The state’s pollution agency, which oversees spill cleanups, has expressed concerns that the pipeline route under consideration will cross as many as 28 isolated streams and wetlands.

“There would be very difficult or no access downstream of the crossing to clean up spills in the event of a crude oil release,” according to an MPCA staff analysis of the route.

“The lack of possible access to these areas by people and equipment necessary to clean up spills increases the likelihood that an incident could result in significant long-term environmental damage.”

The failure to account for the remoteness of the proposed pipeline is a “substantial flaw” with the currently proposed Sandpiper route, according to the MPCA staff.

The agency found that there are numerous other potential pipeline routes in the state that cross far fewer water bodies and have better access in the event of a spill than the current Sandpiper proposal.

Enbridge maintains it’s following state and federal rule regarding safety and has made more than dozen changes in the route to accommodate requests by public officials and landowners to bypass sensitive farmlands and urban areas. It also is considering a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggestion to install extra shutoff valves near some water crossings.

The company’s spokesman also deflected concerns that the pipeline presents an especially high risk because of its often remote location.

“Enbridge invests billions of dollars to prevent releases and to develop systems to quickly respond to, contain and clean up after the unlikely event of a release,” Springer said. “Our goal is zero releases.”

Whenever possible, Enbridge said it intends to follow existing utility corridors and pipeline right-of-ways, including the MinCan pipeline, which is owned by a subsidiary of the Koch Industries.  But the company estimates it will still need to negotiate separate rights-of-way access with more than 2,000 property owners.

To Irene L. Weis, a supervisor in Lake Emma Township where the pipeline would cross near a watershed, the route “defies any kind of reasonable thinking.”

It’s simply a matter of money and expediency, she said.

“What needs to be done is to take a look at the needs now and in the future; how we benefit in the present versus the future impacts,” Weis said. “And if you think of it in those terms, I think the long-term consequences are of much greater significance.”