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Minnesota DNR: Consider rerouting proposed Sandpiper pipeline

A second Minnesota environmental agency has asked state regulators to consider rerouting a proposed crude oil pipeline to avoid northern lakes, wetlands and streams.

The state Department of Natural Resources, in a regulatory filing on Thursday, said the state Public Utilities Commission should “strongly consider” one of several alternative routes “having fewer natural resource impacts” than the route proposed by pipeline company Enbridge Energy.

The Calgary-based company has proposed a Z-shaped route across northern Minnesota to carry North Dakota oil first to its Clearbrook oil terminal in northwest Minnesota. Then the line would flow south, passing near Itasca State Park and Park Rapids, before heading east to another terminal in Superior.

State regulators are reviewing the proposed route and alternatives proposed by other interests, mostly along corridors south of the lakes region. The $2.6 billion, 610-mile Sandpiper project has been approved in North Dakota, whose booming oil industry now sends most of its crude to market in railroad tank cars through Minnesota.

“The preferred route for the Sandpiper Project is proposed in a region of the state that contains a concentration of important lakes for fisheries, trout streams, sensitive aquifers, public conservation lands and mineral and forest resources,” said the DNR letter by Jamie Schrenzel, a principal planner in the agency’s environmental review unit.

The letter said the proposed route could become “a new corridor for multiple pipelines,” a reference to Enbridge’s plan to rebuild another pipeline possibly using the Sandpiper route. The DNR offered to supply environmental data to help compare alternative routes.

The DNR had raised environmental concerns about the Sandpiper project last spring, but only now has joined the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in urging state regulators to consider an all-new route for the pipeline. The PUC asked for comments on the matter earlier this month.

One route being considered would follow existing natural gas and refined petroleum pipelines largely south of the lakes region, an idea first proposed by the MPCA. Seven other routes also have been suggested, mostly by environmental groups, including some south of Interstate 94 and ending nowhere near the Superior terminal where Enbridge intends to deliver crude oil.

Enbridge has said the alternatives are 74 miles to 182 miles longer than its original plan, would cost an additional $185 million to $455 million to build, and could delay the project three years. Company officials were not immediately available Friday morning to comment.

It is the first time that Minnesota regulators have even considered that a proposed pipeline should be built on an all-new route, but such a step would not be unprecedented. In 2011, another Calgary-based pipeline company, TransCanada, decided to reroute the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska to avoid many miles of threatened and endangered species habitat and erodible soils. That project remains stalled because the Obama administration hasn’t decided whether to issue a permit for the line to cross the Canadian-U.S. border.

Enbridge’s Sandpiper project, as a domestic pipeline, doesn’t require a presidential permit. But it does require state approval and an environmental review overseen by the Minnesota Commerce Department. That review is underway, and includes a comparison of environmental risks of alternate routes. Public hearings are planned later this year with a decision likely in 2015.