Two Minnesota agencies granted key construction permits to Enbridge's controversial Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota on Thursday, but final permit approvals by federal regulators, authorization and legal battles still prevent construction from beginning just yet.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency granted the 340-mile pipeline's 401 certification, a permit awarded by a state's regulators if the project's impact on water falls within the state's standard. The agency also approved Line 3's capped air emissions and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System wastewater permit.
The 401 permit will be sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a final approval to make sure it meets Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The federal agency must complete that process before the MPCA then considers the project's construction stormwater permit.
In a news release, the MPCA called Thursday's water permit issuance "its most stringent 401 water quality certification to date."
"Thousands of Minnesotans provided valuable comments that strengthened the 401 certification and the rigorous review during the contested-case hearing validated the proposed stream and wetland crossing safeguards," MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said in the release. "The result is a certification and permits that are strong, enforceable and protective.”
The MPCA touted several requirements in the permit, including a ban on construction from April 1 to July 15 within 25 miles upstream of wild rice waters, third-party monitoring during construction, financial requirements for post-construction wetland restoration and other requirements.
Enbridge celebrated the decision.
"This is clearly a big day for Line 3," Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said in statement. "These authorizations and approvals from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are an important step towards construction for the safety- and maintenance-focused Line 3 Replacement Project. "
Opponents of the pipeline — Friends of the Headwaters, Sierra Club, Honor the Earth, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians — have objected to the permit, arguing it would harm wetlands and streams.
Their concerns were dismissed in October in a non-binding recommendation issued by an administrative law judge who said the groups failed to meet the burden of proof during a summer contested-case hearing on the permit.
In a news release, environmental groups vowed to fight the decision.
“This fight isn’t over," Sierra Club North Star Chapter Director Margaret Levin said. "We will not allow this reckless decision to go unchallenged.”
Added Winona LaDuke, co-founder and executive director of Honor the Earth: “The MPCA has clearly avoided a hard scientific look at the cumulative impacts from Line 3 on 212 stream crossings and thousands of acres of wetland crossings, and water quality."
Opponents of the pipeline said that by approving the permits, the MPCA failed in its obligation to address climate change.
But in a virtual news conference Thursday afternoon, Bishop said climate change was outside the MPCA's permitting scope, which was limited to water.
"While everyone can agree that the increased use of fossil fuels, including oil, will adversely impact our climate, the MPCA can only use its 401 certification authority to regulate water quality for federal regulation," Bishop said.
The Department of Natural Resources also on Thursday granted the project eight of the 10 permits under its purview. It already issued two permits in October.
The DNR's batch of awarded permits include utility crossing licenses for state land and public water, water appropriation permits, work in public waters permits and threatened and endangered species taking permit.
"The DNR conducted a thorough review of these applications, and has determined that these final eight approvals, as conditioned, meet the requirements of state statutes and rules,” DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said in a news release Thursday. “We carefully considered all comments and other input, as reflected in our decision documents.”
Once complete, the pipeline will replace the existing, aging Line 3 and ferry 760,000 barrels of oil (31.92 million gallons) per day from Alberta, Canada, to Enbridge's terminal in Superior, following a new route through much of northern Minnesota. The segments in Canada, North Dakota and Wisconsin are already complete.
The Laborers' International Union of North America in Minnesota and North Dakota said the MPCA and DNR were "acting within the public interest."
"Today's decisions mean that thousands of our friends and neighbors across Minnesota can go to work building the safest pipeline in the state,” the union said, adding it expects construction to begin in December.
Asked when Enbridge anticipated construction to begin, Kellner said: "We are planning to begin construction as soon as we have final authorization and permits in hand. Once it begins, pipeline construction is expected to take between six to nine months to complete."
The project still needs a construction stormwater permit and authorization to construct. Construction may need to wait for ongoing and future litigation, such as groups challenging Thursday's permits in court and an appeal by Gov. Tim Walz's administration that argues state regulators relied on the wrong demand forecast when considering if the state needed the pipeline.
This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. Nov. 12 with additional quotes from an MPCA news conference, Enbridge and labor unions. It was originally posted at 3:31 p.m. Nov. 12.