In a unanimous decision, state regulators in Minnesota approved a controversial new pipeline that will increase the flow of tar sands crude oil from Canada to refineries in the United States.
The long-anticipated ruling is a victory for Canadian pipeline owner Enbridge and a significant blow to environmental and Native American advocates who opposed the pipeline through northern Minnesota in a region rich in wetlands and wild rice lakes.
The "certificate of need" granted Thursday by the state's Public Utility Commission greenlights a replacement for Enbridge's Line 3, a 1,000-mile pipeline that runs from Hardistry, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. The new Line 3 will have an initial capacity about twice that of the current pipeline, and that volume could be increased and also allow for other increases elsewhere in Enbridge's cross-border pipeline network.
The exisiting pipeline, built in the 1960s, crosses Native American land, and a state judge recommended in April that the new Line 3 use the same path. However, the commission on Thursday approved Enbridge's preferred route instead, with some modifications.
While the Enbridge route would skirt the reservations, it would still pass through areas where tribal members harvest wild rice.
"The process kowtowed to corporate interests," said Tara Houska of Indigenous environmental advocacy group Honor the Earth. "Just because a regulatory body that is supposed to protect Minnesotans didn't do its job, it doesn't mean that this is a lost case."
The Pipeline Would Increase Tar Sands Exports
In anticipation of the decision, pipeline opponents blocked one of the streets outside the Public Utility Commission's building in St. Paul on Thursday with a sign reading "Expect Resistance."
When it became clear that the commission would approve the pipeline, Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, stood and shouted, "You have just declared war on the Ojibwe!" the Associated Press reported from the scene.
Enbridge spokesperson Jesse Semko declined to comment on the decision, saying the company was waiting until after the hearing.
The new pipeline would allow for a significant increase in exports of Canadian tar sands crude oil, which is difficult to extract, costly to transport and has a high carbon footprint compared to other crude oil. Currently 2.5 million barrels of tar sands crude is exported from Canada each day, and the region has an oil glut exacerbated by years of opposition to building new pipeline capacity.
While the Public Utility Commission's decision was seen as the last major hurdle before pipeline construction can being in the state, the project still requires various water and soil permits from the state's Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control agency as well as the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Army Corps' permit was the key stamp of approval required in the fiercely contested Dakota Access pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois, a pipeline that began operation in 2017. The Army Corps permit has received little focus in the current pipeline fight as pipeline opponents assume the federal government, under the Trump administration, will approve the project.
"No one is really holding their breath around federal level permits these days," said Natalie Cook, an organizer with the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Appeals and the Possibility of Protests
Pipeline opponents could also appeal the commission's decision.
"There are parties in this case that have lawyers that will continue to fight," said Brent Murcia, one of thirteen Youth Climate Intervenors, ages 17-25, who oppose the pipeline project over concerns it will further fuel climate change.
From the time it is extracted to the time it is burned, oil flowing through the pipeline would add between 35 and 193 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year, according to the project's environmental impact statement.
"The idea that we would be making a long-term investment in that kind of oil transportation capacity at this moment in our history, it's not something we can do," Murcia said.
At least two protest camps near the Line 3 route, including one organized by Honor the Earth, formed in preparation for the Public Utility Commission's decision. The camps raise the specter of mass demonstrations along the pipeline's route similar to those that drew thousands to demonstrate against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation in 2016 and 2017.
"People are prepared to stand and engage in civil disobedience to protect their homelands and protect their treaty territory," Houska said. "We will do what it takes."