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A new business deal puts the plan for a northern MN oil pipeline in limbo

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A business deal announced Wednesday throws a blanket of uncertainty on Enbridge Energy's plan to build an oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

Enbridge has long proposed building a line connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with a refinery in Superior, Wisconsin.

They call it the Sandpiper Pipeline and say it would be more than 600 miles long and cost more than $2.5 billion to build. Critics of Sandpiper say it would risk contaminating some of Minnesota's prime lakes, rivers, and wild ricing waters if there were a petroleum spill or leak.

The new wrinkle

Enbridge announced Wednesday it's buying a stake in a different line, the Bakken Pipeline System.

Enbridge is spending $1.5 billion to be a part-owner of what is essentially two new pipelines that are connected. One runs from the North Dakota oil patch to Illinois. The other continues south to the Texas Gulf Coast. Enbridge says both are expected to be open by the end of this year.

The companies leading the project say taking on new partners will help them pay off their construction loans, the Associated Press reports.

What does this mean for their Minnesota plans?

The one thing Enbridge was definitive about on Wednesday is that its partner in the Sandpiper project – Marathon Petroleum – is getting out of it. Marathon joined Enbridge in buying into the new Bakken line and the companies say as soon as that deal closes Marathon will excuse itself from the Sandpiper project.

Will Enbridge eventually do the same?

They're not saying right now. Enbridge says in Wednesday's statement the Bakken oil fields have "significant growth potential that will require additional pipeline capacity." They say they'll evaluate the Sandpiper project once their new acquisition is done.

Sandpiper critics happy

But if Enbridge isn't saying this is the end of Sandpiper, some of its Minnesota critics are saying it for them.

Friends of the Headwaters won a recent round in the court fight over Sandpiper. Blogger Aaron Brown reports that group's president said about Sandpiper "This project would have put many miles of wetlands, lakes, rivers, streams and wild rice waters at risk of a catastrophic oil spill, and if this project does not move forward, it is a victory for clean water in Minnesota.”

Scott Strand, who leads the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, tells the Star Tribune he thinks Sandpiper will be "put on a shelf." Strand says the amount of crude coming out of North Dakota is much less than a couple years ago and he thinks the new pipeline headed south will give Enbridge all the capacity it needs.

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