Sandpiper project on hold as panel reviews findings
ST. PAUL — Those anxiously awaiting word on the proposed Sandpiper pipeline across Minnesota and northern North Dakota have a bit of a wait ahead of them — to the dismay of many who are clamoring for pipelines to ease the overburdened oil train rail system and fears of more fiery crashes.
After the April 13 delivery of Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman’s recommendation to build the crude oil pipeline, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in the coming months will be considering his report and render a decision if project owner Enbridge has presented enough evidence to grant a certificate of need.
But a hearing for that decision has not yet been scheduled, and it could be months before such a hearing happens.
PUC Executive Secretary Dan Wolf said each party involved had 20 days to file responses to Lipman’s report — which they all did, he said — and the commission staff must sort through it all to present to the commissioners.
Wolf was optimistic a hearing would come sometime later this summer, “sooner rather than later, hopefully.”
Enbridge officials have said the timeline for bringing Sandpiper online has been delayed more than a year. The company had originally scheduled construction to begin this June, with the pipeline operating in the spring of 2016.
The latest company estimate says the roughly 616-mile pipeline that would stretch from near Tioga, N.D., to Superior could be transporting Bakken oil field crude in 2017 — if the PUC approves the project.
Lorraine Little, spokeswoman for Enbridge, said that estimate still applies if the permits are granted in a timely fashion.
“We don’t have an updated time frame for Sandpiper yet because we will still have to complete the routing permit process,” she wrote in an email. “We do not have any dates yet for when that process will commence. We are still estimating receipt of permits in 2016, which would put Sandpiper in service in 2017.”
While the certificate of need has yet to be granted, many officials in North Dakota say the need is clear.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple spoke of the Bakken region’s need for pipelines to alleviate the overburdened rail system while on site of the fiery oil train derailment near Heimdal, N.D., last week.
“The ultimate answer to this challenge is pipelines, and we need pipelines out of the Bakken region,” Dalrymple told Forum News Service on Wednesday between meetings with emergency responders. “They need to go east through Minnesota and they need to go south as well, and the sooner we get them built and finished and get the crude oil into the pipelines, the better it’s going to be.”
Justin Kringstad of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority said current production levels in the Bakken dictate a need for the Sandpiper project.
“I can’t speak on specifics of the regulatory process, but whether it’s working with Minnesota, or with other states for other pipelines, it’s very important we get those hurdles cleared so we can transport our state’s oil,” he said.
Lipman’s recommendation does not necessarily mean the PUC will approve the project’s certificate of need.
This has given hope to organizations opposing the project, like Friends of the Headwaters.
Friends of the Headwaters president Richard Smith was critical of Lipman’s findings, saying he did not give enough weight to environmental concerns.
“He essentially ignored all of the environmental commentary from the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) and the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency),” Smith said. “He barely paid them lip service in his report.”
But pointed questions from commissioners, along with representatives of the DNR and MPCA, during testimony earlier this year has Smith hopeful the commission may go against Lipman’s recommendation.
Even if approved, those opposed to the project plan to continue to fight against Enbridge’s preferred route, which must also be approved by the commission.
“We are confident that the Public Utilities Commission will see that Enbridge’s proposed route is not in the state’s interest,” Smith said. “It puts far too many of our natural resources at risk, when better, alternative routes are available.”
Enbridge officials say they have easement agreements from about 95 percent of landowners along its proposed route, which could play a role in the route approval process.
But there was enough doubt among commissioners that they denied a motion by Enbridge to dismiss a handful of “system alternatives” — different route options that were all more lengthy and costly than Enbridge’s proposed route, and some of which did not hit key connection points in Clearbrook, Minn., and Superior.
Enbridge’s Paul Eberth, the Sandpiper project manager, said in January Sandpiper likely wouldn’t be built if not on the route Enbridge already has easements along.
“The system alternatives proposed by others are fundamentally different projects,” Eberth said. “Connections at Clearbrook and Superior are the underpinnings of our contracts with shippers and our approved Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rate structure. There is no commercial support for the system alternatives.”