For decades the pipeline industry kept its head down, worked below ground and moved quietly from project to project. Those days are gone.
Pipelines are political now, which means companies such as United Piping Inc. are increasingly in the spotlight. The Duluth contractor hasn't shied away, however, as it emerges as a leading defender of the industry through its work as much as its advocacy.
"UPI is a place that people want to work for. There are a lot of people that are proud of what they do," said company president Mel Olson. "I don't know if it's an industry thing or a Minnesota thing, but we just don't do a great job of telling people about the 'why' behind that pride."
For some, the struggle to fight pipelines will define their generation. Those building and maintaining pipelines, meanwhile, depend on the work to ensure a future for their family's next generation.
"There are many in the industry who have sent their kids to college and raised a family on this work their entire life," Olson said. "You're proud at the end of the day because you're installing and helping to feed this nation's energy source."
UPI has had a busy enough year expanding its Duluth campus, adding new services and growing its territory on top of hosting pro-pipeline events and attending countless meetings on the Enbridge Line 3 replacement project that could provide a lot of jobs for the union workforce UPI employs.
While there are still more public hearings to come - and UPI will be there among the supporters and opponents - the state could decide as soon as next spring whether to approve Enbridge's largest project to date.
There will still be work to do if the replacement plan is turned down: Enbridge has identified 6,000 maintenance projects over the next 15 years on the existing Line 3 to keep it running safely. And keeping pipelines safe is what UPI does.
In the conference room at 4510 Airport Road, UPI's values and mission are inscribed on the side of an imposing piece of pipe. It's no replica.
"It's the world's heaviest wall art, so there's some good reinforcement behind that wall," Olson said.
The professional engineer highlights one word in particular: Caring.
"I don't know if you have a lot of construction contractors that have caring as their core value, but it's what we look at every day," Olson said.
For 20 years UPI has built its reputation on caring about safety and quality - how else would a pipeline fabricator and contractor get a second job, or a third, if they screwed up the first?
Bob Shoneberger and Dave Rickard started United Piping Inc. in 1997 when they bought Ogston's Inc. and operated it initially as just a pipeline fabrication shop. By 1999 the company had 12 full-time employees and employed up to 45 people during busy times.
Today UPI has 60 full-time employees in Duluth but can swell up to 800 when there's enough work to be had.
While Rickard has retired from the business, Shoneberger remains the company's CEO, a role he took on this spring when he made Olson president.
"I was given a pretty good hand here at UPI in terms of having a very engaged culture," Olson said.
The 43-year-old takes the helm at a whirlwind time for UPI, which now has satellite offices in Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania and has been working recently in Oklahoma. Here at home, UPI started leasing a new building at 4435 Venture Ave. across the street from its headquarters, shop and equipment yard.
"We've also redoubled efforts in recent years to get some client diversity," Olson said, and adding new services like horizontal directional drilling will help that.
Despite the growth, however, Olson said not that much has changed in the past two decades.
"Even through significant growth through the years, we've maintained what that special sauce is."
Inside the fence
UPI focuses on the "inside the fence" work, Olson says, with a lot of prefabricated pieces and specialty welds the company has pioneered.
"The type of work we do is not the mainline construction - we don't build 300 miles of pipeline across the country - but every so often, there's a pump station," he said.
As the company is signatory to the National Pipeline Agreement, UPI taps the local union workforce for its contracts.
"They offer a lot of opportunities for men and women in the trades, and have been for 20 years," said Dan Olson, business manager for Building & General Laborers Local 1091. "They've been a good partner at providing training, and they've dedicated a lot of their time into making sure that some of these projects go forward."
About half of UPI's revenue comes from maintenance projects on existing pipelines, while other work, such as Enbridge's terminal expansion last year, keeps workers busy as well. And though it's a contentious time to be a pipeline contractor in some circles, UPI has made many friends over the years through that work.
"United Piping is a top-notch contractor with a tireless focus on safety and quality that we enjoy partnering with to provide safe energy transportation that powers our communities," John Swanson, Enbridge vice president of U.S. Major Projects, said in a statement.
Mel Olson said that safety and quality are essentially the same thing - safety is the short-term work that gets people home safely, and quality means keeping communities and environments safe over a project's design life.
While the debate rages on over the replacement for a pipeline at the end of its design life, Olson stressed that even though the Line 3 jobs won't be permanent, there will be a lasting impact.
"I hear some arguments being made that the jobs we do are temporary jobs, and it's not that big of an impact, but I know there are many in the trades that bristle at that," he said. "There are a lot of good wages to be made and a high quality of life in being a trade worker."
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Line 3 construction underway in Wisconsin
While Minnesota has yet to allow Enbridge to lay a new pipeline across the state, work has started on the final 12 miles of the Line 3 replacement from the Wisconsin state line to the terminal in Superior.
Construction is also set to begin on the other end of the pipeline in Canada this summer after the government there approved the project in November.
Line 3, which today carries 390,000 barrels of oil per day between Alberta and Superior, was built between 1962 and 1967 and requires increasing maintenance, prompting Enbridge to seek a replacement. The new pipe would take a different route through the middle of Minnesota and restore the line's original capacity to 760,000 barrels per day.
The $7.5 billion project would directly support 4,200 construction jobs in Minnesota.
Critics oppose the project on environmental grounds and say it violates tribal treaty rights and contributes to climate change in addition to creating a new path for pipelines to cross the state. Some landowners are also concerned that Enbridge plans to leave most of the old Line 3 in the ground after it is cleaned out and deactivated.
A final environmental impact statement for the project will be issued Aug. 10, and more public hearings are scheduled for this fall. The state Public Utilities Commission could decide the fate of the pipeline as soon as next spring.