Environmental groups on Wednesday filed a legal challenge to the U.S. State Department’s approval of a major increase of Canadian tar sands oil flowing through Enbridge Energy pipelines into the U.S.

The groups, joined by the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, filed suit in federal district court in Minneapolis, alleging federal officials acted illegally and in collusion with pipeline industry executives when they approved a major expansion of oil moving across the border.

The State Department recently signed off on a plan by Enbridge to use the Canadian portion of the Alberta Clipper line to move oil south, transfer the oil to another, parallel pipeline - called Line 3 - for the actual border crossing, then transfer it back into Alberta Clipper once the oil is in the U.S.

The plan will add an extra 350,000 barrels, or 14.7 million gallons, per day to the Alberta Clipper capacity and is considered a temporary move until the increased flow is approved to cross the border in the Alberta Clipper line, also known as Line 67.

The State Department must approve all cross-border pipelines. But Enbridge claims, and the State Department so far has agreed, that Enbridge’s proposed back-and-forth transfer avoids the need for new State Department approval of the border crossing because the 1968-vintage Line 3 already is permitted by the government.

“The approval this summer

happened without public notice and without a legally required review that’s meant to protect air, water, wildlife and public health,” the groups said Wednesday. The “scheme’’ to move the oil back and forth between lines “is a blatant attempt to bypass” federal environmental regulations, said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Environmental groups said they have obtained documents that show collusion between State Department officials and Enbridge in allowing the transfer between pipelines.

“What’s happening here is extraordinarily illegal,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Enbridge officials on Wednesday said the pipeline transfer is legal and proper.

“Enbridge believes that the State Department has acted lawfully in connection with its presidential permitting responsibilities,” said Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little. “We constructed interconnections between the existing Line 67 and Line 3 pipelines in both Canada and the U.S. to allow us to meet customer demands in the short term using existing permitted cross-border capacity while the Line 67 presidential permit amendment application remains pending before the State Department.”

A State Department spokesman could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.

Designed for expansion

The State Department is considering the major expansion for the Alberta Clipper pipeline that will bring more so-called tar sands oil 1,000 miles from northern Canada into the U.S., across 285 miles of northern Minnesota to Superior, much of it destined for refineries to the south and east.

The Alberta Clipper line was completed in 2010. The 36-inch diameter line was designed to be expanded by adding pumping stations, a move that could nearly double capacity to 800,000 barrels, or 3.6 million gallons per day. Now, Enbridge is ready for that expansion.

It’s not clear when the State Department will act on the original Alberta Clipper crossing permit. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission already has approved an increase in pumping capacity of the Alberta Clipper line within the state.

Supporters say the pipeline is the safest way to move Canadian oil to U.S. markets and that the effort will help decrease U.S. energy dependence on distant, sometimes hostile foreign nations. Canada already is by far the largest source of imported oil into the U.S.

But critics say the U.S. is producing enough of its own oil now and doesn’t need what they call “dirty oil” from northern Canada. They say extracting the tar sands oil causes severe environmental degradation in Canada and that the oil also requires additional refining, thus creating an even larger greenhouse gas footprint.

 Environmentalists say the increased movement of tar sands oil will offset years of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which the vast majority of scientists studying the issue say are responsible for global climate change.

While national environmental groups had previously focused on the rival Keystone XL pipeline to the west, the Alberta Clipper expansion has attracted more opposition in the past year. Opponents note that President Barack Obama has been critical of the potential environmental impact of Keystone, delaying its construction for years, while now allowing a similar-sized expansion of Alberta Clipper.

“The administration is contradicting itself” by approving Enbridge’s increase while challenging the Keystone project, said Doug Hayes, a Sierra Club attorney. “The same climate test (being applied to Keystone) should be applied to all cross-border pipelines.”

Hayes noted that tar sands oil also is extremely hard to clean up should it spill and that the heavy oil is hard to recover if it spills in waterways.

“Communities and (emergency) responders don’t have the tools to deal with it,” he said, adding that there are proposals to move some of the Canadian oil by tanker across Lake Superior.

 So far those proposals have not advanced.

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