Hearings underway on proposed oil pipeline in northern Minnesota

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Minnesota residents who live along the route of a proposed 610-mile pipeline that would carry oil from North Dakota's Bakken oil fields to Superior, Wisconsin, are getting a chance this week to sound off on the plan.

Public hearings are scheduled in several cities to hear from supporters and opponents of Enbridge Energy's Sandpiper pipeline project. The first one took place in St. Paul Monday afternoon before an administrative law judge. He will also take public testimony at events scheduled in Duluth, Bemidji, Crookston and St. Cloud (Details about those hearings are available here).

The $2.6 billion pipeline would carry about 225,000 barrels of oil per day. Pipelines already in operation deliver some 2 million barrels per day to refineries in the Twin Cities area and other locations farther to the east. Trains carry another 500,000 barrels, according to MPR News.

About 200 people attended Monday's hearing in St. Paul, and they were about evenly split between supporters and opponents, the Associated Press reports.

Opponents concerned about climate change told the judge that the pipeline shouldn't be built at all; that using the oil would contribute to global warming, and the emphasis should be on developing renewable energy.

The Sandpiper line would cut across about 300 miles of northern Minnesota's lakes region, and other environmental groups are more concerned about the risks it could pose to lakes and rivers, the Crookston Times reports.

The group Friends of the Headwaters has been pressing the company to consider other potential routes. In an unusual move, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ordered Enbridge in September to come up with six alternate routes for the pipeline to avoid environmentally sensitive areas.

Richard Smith, the head of the Friends of the Headwaters, told MPR News his group is not opposed to the pipeline itself.

"We just think the company should consider a different place for this pipeline so that Minnesota's water resources aren't at risk," he said.

Enbridge points out that about 75 percent of the proposed route generally follows existing routes or rights-of-way for other pipelines and infrastructure that's already in use.

The project's director, Paul Eberth, said Enbridge tried to find the least disruptive route for the pipeline, and noted that several of the alternatives could impact more waterways and would be closer to population centers, according to MPR.

"Our operations have been going on in northern Minnesota for about 65 years," Ebert told the Crookston Times. "I think we've done just fine coexisting with the enjoyment of natural resources in northern Minnesota. I don't think our operations are having a negative impact on the environment."

Business groups such as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce support the Sandpiper for its value as an economic development tool. And labor unions hope the project is approved soon, since it's expected to create some 1,500 construction jobs.

Enbridge said the Sandpiper project would boost property tax revenue paid by the company in Minnesota by $25 million. The company said it has negotiated property easements with 92 percent of landowners along the route.

After this week's hearings, Judge Eric Lipman will make his recommendations to the Public Utilities Commission by April 15. The PUC will then have two decisions to make: Whether the pipeline is needed at all; and if so, what route it will take. The panel is expected to decide in June, according to the Associated Press.

If it's approved, Enbridge expects it to be in service in 2017.

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