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Minnesota appeals court upholds Line 3 pipeline approval

The decision is a blow to Tribal leaders and environmentalists fighting the project.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld the state's approval of Enbridge Energy's Line 3 pipeline replacement project, dealing a blow to tribes and environmentalists who are fighting the controversial pipeline.

The three-judge panel voted 2-1 to affirm the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's (PUC) decision to issue a certificate of need for the multi-billion dollar project. 

The appeals court decision comes in response to a legal challenge by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the White Earth Nation, the Red Lake Nation and environmental groups that have asserted a lack of need for the replacement pipeline, saying Enbridge hadn't proven demand for the oil the new pipeline will carry and that oil demand will decrease as electric cars and renewable energy becomes more popular.

They also argued the environmental impact statement wasn't adequate because it didn't consider the effects of a potential oil spill near Lake Superior.  

Meanwhile, Enbridge has stressed the new pipeline is needed because there's still a demand from companies that buy crude oil, adding it will replace a smaller pipeline in order to meet oil needs for years to come.

"And, while reasonable minds may differ on the central question of need for replacement Line 3, substantial evidence supports the commission’s decision to issue a certificate of need. Finally, the commission reasonably selected a route for the replacement pipeline based upon respect for tribal sovereignty, while minimizing environmental impacts. Accordingly, we affirm," Judge Lucinda Jesson writes in the 78-page decision.

Jesson did state the review of the PUC's Line 3 decision was “largely deferential to the expertise of the executive branch."

"After six years of community engagement, environmental review, regulatory and legal review, it's good to see confirmation of previous decisions on the Line 3 Replacement Project," Enbridge Executive Vice President and President Liquids Pipelines Vern Yu said in a statement regarding the court's decision. "From the start, the project has been about improving safety and reliability for communities and protecting the environment."

While the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Enbridge, Appeals Court Judge Peter Reyes wrote a pointed 20-page dissent

"The PUC approved a new pipeline that benefits Canadian oil producers but traverses 340 miles of Minnesota land, which among other negative consequences will affect hunting, fishing, and other rights of relators Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and White Earth Band of Ojibwe, with no benefit to Minnesota. Such a decision cannot stand. Enbridge needs Minnesota for its new pipeline. But Enbridge has not shown that Minnesota needs the pipeline. I would therefore reverse."

The court's decision is a blow to Native American tribal members and environmental groups that have been battling the project in court, saying the pipeline will usurp Indigenous treaty rights and contribute to climate change, as well as put Minnesota's waterways at risk for oil spills and leaks, threatening the waters several Indigenous tribes have treaty rights to hunt, fish and collect wild rice. 

After a years-long review and permitting process, Canadian-based Enbridge Energy got the approvals it needed last fall to begin construction in December 2020 on a Line 3 replacement pipeline. It will carry crude oil from the tar fields in Canada to Superior, Wisconsin, via 337 miles in northern Minnesota. Once the oil pipeline is complete (it's halfway done), it will carry millions of gallons of oil per day.

The Line 3 project has proved a controversial one, dividing those who want the jobs boost that such a construction project would bring – backed by many state Republicans – with those who fear the potential environmental risk of a pipeline cutting through areas of natural beauty and watersheds, including through wetlands and near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. (Enbridge has stressed the pipeline is safe.)

Those against the pipeline have been hopeful legal appeals would go through to prevent the completion of the pipeline but have also been protesting in northern Minnesota in hopes of stopping construction and forcing President Joe Biden to take action to stop the project. 

Related [June 7]: Border patrol helicopter used against Line 3 protesters in northern Minnesota

Tribal members and environmentalists have held smaller protests in northern Minnesota for months, which led to more than 250 people being arrested. And earlier this month, the largest civil disobedience so far against Line 3 took place, leading to 179 people being arrested and 68 people being issued citations. 

There are other challenges, including one related to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's water permits and another related to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, that are still working their way through the court process. 

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