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Other View: Can facts support need for Line 3?

The wrangle over a planned replacement of a northern Minnesota oil pipeline hasn't captured the headlines and attention of last year's Dakota Access standoff in North Dakota, but the echoes are audible.

Environmental activists are campaigning against the use of Canadian tar field oil. Tribes are concerned about the risk of contaminating waters, including, in this case, valued wild-ricing beds. There has been civil disobedience at a worksite in Superior.

Our default position on pipelines is simple: If the petroleum has to be moved, it's better to move it by pipeline than by rail or truck.

But an analysis of the project issued this month by the state Commerce Department casts serious doubt on the necessity of moving the oil.

The line, Enbridge's "Line 3," connects oil fields in Alberta, Canada, to a terminal in Superior. The stretch in question runs from a terminal in Clearbrook, Minn., to Superior. The current Line 3 was built in the 1960s and put into operation in 1968. It is aging and deteriorating, and Enbridge, a major pipeline operator, proposes to replace it, returning it to its original capacity.

A stretch of the proposal follows a much different route than the current line, which runs more or less directly between Clearbrook and Superior and bisects a pair of Indian reservations (Leech Lake and Fond du Lac). Enbridge wants to run the new Line 3 south to the edge of Itasca State Park, skirting the park's northern and eastern boundaries, then run it east to Superior. The new route would clip a corner of the White Earth Reservation, but otherwise would avoid reservations. It would, the company says, follow an existing electrical transmission right-of-way.

Enter the Commerce Department, required by state law to scrutinize the project and to report to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The project cannot move forward without a certificate of need from the PUC, and Commerce's analysis argues against granting that certificate. The recommendation rests on three key findings, that Upper Midwest refineries already are operating at high capacity with "little room to increase total crude runs," that Enbridge already has expanded its Line 67 "equivalent to Enbridge's stated need to increase capacity on Line 3," and that an independent projection of future consumption shows that "Minnesota demand for refined products appears unlikely to increase in the long term."

That last is a projection, and it differs from Enbridge's view of the future. But we do know that the major oil companies expect petroleum use to level off and then decline, and they are investing and planning accordingly. That fits Commerce's expectation.

The Commerce Department recommends not only that the replacement for Line 3 be denied but that the current pipeline, operating now at a little under half its capacity, be shut down and removed.

The recommendation drew immediate fire from Republican legislators, many of whom used some formulation of "radical environmentalists" to attack it. But derogatory labels aren't an effective counterargument. The Commerce Department's recommendation is likely to stand unless advocates of the new Line 3 present a fact-based rationale that refutes that analysis.

-- Mankato Free Press