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Oil pipeline in northern Minnesota up for major decision this week

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A major pipeline project planned for northern Minnesota is at a critical point this week, as regulators will decide whether to give the official approval for its construction.

Opponents of the pipeline still hope their protests will keep the project from being built.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will consider approval of Enbridge Energy's $2.5 billion Sandpiper pipeline this week, according to WCCO.

It will hear final arguments on Wednesday and is expected to take a final vote Friday on the project's "certificate of need," which would be a big step forward toward construction, according to MPR News. North Dakota officials signed off on the project last year.

The Sandpiper would carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to a terminal in Clearbrook, Minn., and then across northern Minnesota to a refinery in Superior, Wis.

The new pipeline would carry about twice as much oil as an existing line can handle – from 225,000 barrels per day to 600,000 barrels.

The 600-mile route the company proposed cuts close to the Mississippi River headwaters, and travels through sensitive wild rice areas and aquifers.

Indian tribes and environmental groups strongly oppose the pipeline, saying an oil spill along the route could be devastating to the area's pristine waters and wild rice beds.

Enbridge hosted a sometimes tense meeting last week on the Fond du Lac Reservation, according to MPR News, and heard many tribal members express their concerns about the project.

Tribal leaders say they have not been given enough say during the pipeline's review process, so the White Earth and Mille Lacs Bands will hold their own hearings this week. They hope to convince the PUC to delay its vote to consider the testimony that will be taken at those hearings.

Enbridge says the project will create about 3,000 construction jobs, about half of which are likely to be filled by North Dakotans and Minnesotans. It also says transporting oil by pipeline is safer than rail.

Even if the PUC approves the pipeline certificate on Friday, it still has to act on the final route and that process would likely take several more months.

In August, the PUC unanimously agreed to consider a different route, recommended by the state Pollution Control Agency, that would travel farther south to avoid some of the most fragile areas.

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