Pipeline advocates visit Baxter amid statewide debate over Line 3
BAXTER—While it isn't "in our backyard" as members of the discussion noted, the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline stands as an issue with significant ramifications—no matter where one stands in the argument.
Representatives of Minnesotans for Line 3 stopped in Baxter Tuesday, May 15, to present their side of the debate that's been a central focus of environmental issues in the state since 2013, when the replacement project was first proposed. Billed as an informational presentation, the room was furnished for a group setting. One person attended.
In the Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes, a discussion was hosted by Bob Schoneberger, the CEO of United Piping Inc., as well as the founding chairperson of Minnesotans for Line 3. Baxter was to be the first stop in a tour that included Fergus Falls, Park Rapids, Fargo, N.D., Grand Forks, N.D., and Bemidji; a statewide trek of an itinerary over May 15-16. United Piping Inc. is a subcontractor in the Line 3 project.
This comes at a time when the Line 3 replacement project is reaching fruition—the Minnesota State House of Representatives opted to fasttrack the project in short order with a vote of 74-51; thereby bypassing a review by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which was slated to give its verdict in June.
The House's selected route for the new Line 3 honors Enbridge's request, though it disregards an administrative law judge's opinion the pipeline only be allowed along its existing route. The bill now goes to the Minnesota State Senate and then the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton for approval.
State Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, praised the vote that granted a certificate of need and route approval for the project as a pro-safety measure for the Brainerd-Baxter area.
"Without this pipeline the lakes area will see a significant safety concern as the loss of capacity would move directly to local railroad routes through Baxter and Brainerd," Heintzeman stated in a news release. "It's time to get this project moving for northern Minnesota workers, their families and our economy."
State Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, also lauded the bill as a means to protect the long-term environmental health of the area.
"It's long overdue for Minnesota to move ahead on protecting the environment and public safety by replacing this aging pipeline," Lueck stated in a news release. "People in our region do not want crude oil unit trains running night and day through our small towns. Failing to replace an aging pipeline running at about half capacity not only risks disrupting our energy supply, but as each year goes by the risk to the environment increases. We are not protecting the environment by continuing to delay this project."
Opponents from across the state have lambasted the Line 3 replacement project as a toxic danger to the local water-rich environments, while simultaneously posing as a tool of corporate greed dishonestly portrayed as an economic driver for the Upper Midwest.
While it's still to be determined whether the state Legislature will fast track approval for the Enbridge Line 3 replacement project, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will convene in the coming weeks to assess the issue:
• Oral arguments on Monday, June 18, and Tuesday, June 19, and Tuesday, June 26.
• The commission will deliberate and hear further oral arguments on Tuesday, June 26, and Wednesday, June 27.
Minnesotans for Line 3
Schoneberger said Enbridge pinned its plans on a route that largely follows the current Line 3 until about Clearbrook, before veering south (mostly along an already existing power line) to Park Rapids and then east to Superior, Wis. In total, the Enbridge Line 3 is 1,031 miles of 36-inch diameter pipeline (with 337 miles of it in Minnesota), costing a combined capital of $8.2 billion to construct ($2.9 billion for infrastructure in the United States).
"We're just people in support of replacing our country's infrastructure," Schoneberger said, describing what Minnesotans for Line 3 stands for. "Specifically, here we're talking Line 3—we just think that's important, especially when you've got aging infrastructure. It needs to be rebuilt from time to time and it should be rebuilt."
Compared to the original pipeline laid in the 60s, Schoneberger said new construction features stronger steel that's resistant to corrosion, a powdery epoxy coating bonded to the steel and a polyethylene cover, much like an industrial-grade electrical tape. Technology also enables better monitoring of the pipeline, Schoneberger said.
Schoneberger said much of Minnesotans for Line 3's purpose is driven by economic motivations—by providing an abundance of resources such as crude oil, he noted, it contributes to the general well-being of a given population. Through installing a new pipeline, the influx of oil returned to levels the region needs and has come to expect—especially with crude coming at a premium when railroads pulls up the slack, Schoneberger said.
In terms of job creation, Line 3 is expected to entail the construction of five "spreads," or about 75-100 miles of piping. Schoneberger said local economies can expect anywhere between 500 to 700 construction jobs for each spread, garnering higher wages that will trickle back into area businesses as well.
As the project entails, full capacity is 760,000 barrels of crude per day (versus about 390,000- 400,000 barrels per day currently in the corroded pipeline), transported down from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, through more than 1,000 miles of pipeline, to facilities and refineries across the Midwest.
While there are groups that not only oppose the replacement pipeline, but also the original pipe, it would be detrimental to the economy, causing fuel prices to skyrocket, Schoneberger said.
He added he could fall behind green or renewable sources of energy, if they were economically feasible for most people and corporations to implement at this time.
"They work, but it's too expensive," he said.
In January, Forbes magazine reported that green and renewable energy sources will be competitive with fossil fuels by 2020, citing a study by the International Renewable Energy Agency. Between 2010 and 2018, the cost of generating power from onshore wind fell by around 23 percent and the cost of solar electricity fell by 73 percent.
Schoneberger characterized the project as not only economically beneficial, but a boon for the environment as well. He cautioned against the notion that pipeline leaks are inevitable.
"No, leaks are not inevitable," Schoneberger said, adding reports of leaks can misconstrue the situation to be more than it is. He said leaks are uniformly reported, whether they're 5 gallons or 5,000 gallons—both register as a single leak in the tally. Instead, the actual chance for leaks is "beyond remote," as Schoneberger put it.
"We're environment people as well. The existing Line 3 is in tough shape, that's no secret, everybody knows it," said Schoneberger, who added the pipeline was subjected to the first environmental review of its kind and deemed adequate. "In order to maintain it in any kind of operating capacity, it's going to cost a lot of money and cause a lot of disruptions. To fix that, I think it's best just to replace Line 3 entirely."
Ojibwe communities in the northern parts of the state have been vocal in their opposition to the pipeline and while retreading the old 60s-era route wouldn't cross any reservation land, it would conflict with the traditional homeland of Native Americans, said Frank Bibeau, a tribal attorney with the White Earth Ojibwe. There, tribes enjoy special rights in terms of hunting, fishing and other land usages.
Jim Reents—a co-founder of the Northern Water Alliance of Minnesota, an advocacy group originally created to oppose the Sandpiper pipeline—said the designation of Line 3 initiative as a "replacement project" is dishonest, as about two-thirds of the pipe will be built in new areas if Enbridge is granted its preferred route.
After the pipe goes south of Clearbrook and turns east at Park Rapids, Reents said, proponents try to delegitimize ctriciism by saying the pipe will be built in conjunction with a power line on the way to Superior, Wis. By calling it an "energy corridor," developers are falsely implying that Line 3 would function in land already used for similar purposes, when power lines pose a entirely different (and much more benign) set of potential outcomes.
"It crosses pretty much ever major drainage across the northern part of the state, every major source of water for not only the Twin Cities, but a lot of people above the Twin Cities, as well as down the Mississippi River," Reents said during a phone interview. He noted his organization's opposition isn't grounded against the overarching idea of a pipeline, as much as its placement.
"There are places you can put pipe lines that don't necessarily impact groundwater but surface waters in the state (as well), especially in a state where we make an issue of having 10,000 lakes. We depend on tourism, yet we put a pipe through the middle of that," Reents said. "The new corridor is inappropriate in a water-rich environment."
Reents said the environmental impact statement, compiled by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, is a flawed document. According to the statement, the pipeline is planned to be buried 8 feet in the ground along the "entire route," where the water table is supposedly 10 feet below the surface—however, reality doesn't reflect this assumption, Reents said.
"That doesn't make sense because they're going through wetlands, they're going through streams, the Mississippi River twice," Reens said. "During the evidentiary hearings before the administrative law judge, no one from Enbridge could tell the judge how much of the actual pipeline would be below or at the level of the groundwater."
In contrast to Schoneberger, Reents said many problems are the result of not just large oil spills, but miniscule "pin leaks" that gradually bleed oil into the surrounding water table. These tiny breeches go undetected because sensors in place are calibrated to ignore 1 percent-2 percent variations in flow.
These leaks can go undetected for years, Reents said. In turn, it's time-consuming and extremely difficult to clean an ecosystem once pollutions have reached the groundwater.
Reents rejected Schoneberger's assessment that chances of a future leak are "beyond remote," pointing to the example of the Keystone 1 pipeline that runs from Hardisty, Alberta, to Patoka, Ill. It's a pipe that's experienced three separate major leaks, Reents said, yet it was only completed in 2010; a far cry from predictions by proponents that a new system of pipes will make up for the failing Line 3 infrastructure originally built in 1967.
"Pipelines leak," said Reents, who also noted spills at Kalamazoo, Mich., and Grand Rapids are indicative of this pattern. "It's been found in Canada that a high percentage of pipeline leaks are caused by human error. I understand humans are still involved in this process. You can have a good system, the best checks and balances, and one guy has a bad day, comes to work and screws it up."
Whatever condition the pipe is—to say little of the condition of the surrounding soil or watershed—there is scant legal framework to enforce a company's responsibility to a pipeline, said Colleen Bernu, a property owner on the route in Carlton County and an advocate with Minnesotans for Pipeline Cleanup.
Once a pipe is deemed no longer useful, or if the owner company is bought out, merged or semantic corporate designations change, she added, the legal issue of "abandonment" comes up.
"Currently there is no legislation that requires pipeline companies or any other type of in-ground infrastructure companies to remove their lines once they're not using them," Bernu said. "Abandonment doesn't mean Enbridge isn't going to monitor the line. Abandonment legally means that they are no longer going to transport any petroleum-based product through the pipe, but they're going to leave it in the ground."
As such, under a state of abandonment, the company is no longer obligated to maintain the line, nor are they obligated to monitor the line, setting the stage for long-term environmental abuse and the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for private corporate irresponsibility.
Bernu said this is already the fact of the matter for the old Line 3—a lost cause, she said, a problem already in the laps of property owners. By replacing it with a new Line 3, Enbridge may create not one, but two corridors of toxic pipeline when it's all said and done.
Reents also took issue with predictions of explosive job creation and economic boom, noting he's seen predictions run all over the place, from a couple hundred, to more than 84,000 jobs affected.
"The math just doesn't add up," Reents said. "The numbers are just way too out of line."
Enbridge itself has stated about 1,500-2,500 jobs may be created—a ballpark of numbers Reents said he feels is most realistic.
However, these jobs are short-term—the average pipeline construction job, he said, lasts about 13 weeks—while these jobs in high-paying construction and welding can't be filled by Minnesotans for the most part because there aren't enough available and qualified workers.
Instead, most of these jobs will find their way to workers from Texas and Oklahoma until it's "really cold," he said, whereupon it will finally be shifted to Minnesota firms that specialize in the wintertime.
All in all, the economic impact of pipelines is akin to sports stadiums, Reents said—they're often billed as economic drivers on the front end, but they're actual impact is often minimal and short lived, while corporations pocket the profits and the public foots the bill.
Beyond that, it's a matter of speculation, Reents said—is the Line 3 pipeline, or other pipelines current and planned, will they be worthwhile and practical in 10-20 years?