Tribal and environmental advocates win renewed environmental scrutiny for Line 3

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photo credit: NASA

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership – @mattjdoll

On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals laid a significant new obstacle in the path of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline project. The presiding judge stated that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) did not adequately account for the risk of the pipeline spilling tar sands oil into the Lake Superior watershed when it approved its environmental impact study (EIS) for Line 3. Though this decision doesn’t put an end to the Line 3 project, it could create a significant delay and does force the PUC to more effectively reckon with the Superior watershed spill question.

This decision resulted from an appeal of the PUC’s study brought forward by the White Earth, Red Lake, and Mille Lacs Ojibwe bands as well as Friends of the Headwaters and MEP member organization Honor the Earth. Their appeal focused on various deficient sections of the EIS, including the Lake Superior watershed issues as well as the tremendous climate impacts and threats to indigenous treaty rights in Minnesota. This ruling, however, rejected these other concerns.

Lake Superior faces rising threats

While Lake Superior is considered the cleanest of the Great Lakes, its watershed faces challenges on many fronts, including invasive species, plastic and pharmaceutical pollution, and industrial activity. Four Enbridge pipelines cross through the Minnesota part of the watershed and terminate in Superior, Wisconsin. Another Enbridge pipeline continues across northern Wisconsin and eventually crosses the Straits of Mackinac.

Due to the nature of the tar sands oil carried by these lines, a spill in the watershed could be catastrophic to the surrounding water and wildlife and present a herculean cleanup task. Concerned citizens raised this issue during the environmental review process. The Court of Appeals found that the Public Utilities Commission had scarcely addressed this risk in its EIS process, and would have to confront the issue to satisfy existing law. It’s not clear how much this affects plans for the Line 3 pipeline, but it does require the PUC to return to the drawing board for this portion of the EIS.

Other concerns go unaddressed by court

This ruling is beneficial in that it requires a full assessment of pollution threats to Lake Superior. Robust citizen concern for Lake Superior helped raise the concern for this risk.  But the ruling only scratched the surface of Line 3’s hazards.

The Court found that the EIS had adequately addressed climate impacts and possible harm to tribal rights, at least enough to satisfy its legal requirements. But considering the many negative repercussions of new fossil fuel infrastructure – such as a new pipeline that could threaten Minnesota waters and tribal communities for decades – it’s not clear that current laws are working to adequately protect Minnesotans. The apparent default position for courts and regulators has long been that oil pipelines must be allowed to go forward in some manner. Through the tireless efforts of climate advocates and water protectors, that paradigm may finally be starting to change.

Fortunately, this appeal – and the ruling it won in court – is only one part of the defense of Minnesota and the planet against Line 3. Environmental advocates and the Department of Commerce are also challenging the PUC’s approval of the pipeline, working through multiple means to make sure Minnesotans’ needs are heard.

We thank all those who have been working to protect our water, climate, and communities in the face of this proposed pipeline – and urge Minnesotans to keep standing and speaking up.

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