Supporters tout energy reliability and jobs while critics say world’s climate is at tipping point

Supporters and critics seemed about evenly divided among the nearly 300 people gathered Thursday night for a hearing on the proposed expansion of Enbridge Energy’s Alberta Clipper oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

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About half the people testifying supported Enbridge’s effort to bring more heavy crude from northwestern Canada into Superior and then move it on to refineries across the Midwest, with more oil meaning more jobs and more stable energy supply - all while reducing the need for overseas oil.

Other supporters proclaimed Enbridge a great corporate citizen supporting hundreds of high-paying jobs in the Northland, supporting local nonprofit agencies and working hard to prevent oil spills or other environmental harm.

The expansion will help bring “economic stability and energy security” to the region, said Jason Risdall of Duluth, a Minnesota Power employee, adding that Enbridge is a major customer of Minnesota Power electricity and thus helps the Duluth-based utility invest in cleaner energy sources.

But about half the crowd gathered at the Holiday Inn ballroom in Duluth said Enbridge was part of a global catastrophe in the making, a “lethal carbon bomb” about to tip the Earth past irrevocable climate change, said Christopher LaForge of Port Wing.

A state administrative law judge working with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission was accepting the testimony as part of the public record as the commission decides whether Enbridge should receive a certificate of need to expand capacity of the existing pipeline by about 40 percent, to 800,000 barrels, or 33.6 million gallons of oil, per day.

A PUC decision is expected by late summer.

Amy Wilson of Duluth asked the PUC to deny the expansion, saying the burning of tar sands oil causes more carbon dioxide emissions than alternative oils and requires more energy to refine. And, while Enbridge isn’t pumping or even burning the oil, “a barrel shipped is a barrel burned,” Wilson said. “All your profits are on the world’s shoulder.”

While some opponents stressed the damage that pipeline spills have caused, such as Enbridge’s million-gallon spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, others said the issue was larger than simply local jobs verses the local environment. The problem of increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere has to be tackled now, and stopping the pipeline expansion is a start, said Kate Crowley of Willow River.

“This is a global issue,” she said. “We can no long keep passing this problem on to the next generation.”

 But Mark Curwin, senior director of strategic communications for Enbridge, said the Canadian heavy crude oil will find its way to market whether it’s through Enbridge lines across Minnesota or some other means.

“The oil sands are being developed because all of us use oil,” Curwin noted. “The oil sands will be developed whether we build this expansion or not.”

While Enbridge is based in Calgary and Houston, the Twin Ports are the northern U.S. home for Enbridge, which bases about 750 jobs here (employees and contractors) with a more than $62 million payroll. Superior is the hub of an elaborate network of pipelines and massive storage tanks for vast amounts of North Dakota and northwestern Canadian crude oil that first crosses Minnesota and is then transferred to other pipelines on its way to refineries in the Twin Cities and Midwest.

The Alberta Clipper, also called Line 67, runs 1,000 miles from Canada to Superior, where it connects with other pipelines to move the oil south. Finished in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion, the pipeline was designed to handle more oil if the pumping capacity was increased, as is now being proposed.

Enbridge needs both state PUC approval and a presidential permit from the federal government. The PUC last year already signed off on a smaller expansion of the same line.

The Alberta Clipper expansion is one of several big projects Enbridge has in the works, including:

  • The all-new $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline from western North Dakota to Superior, part of it along new routes from past lines, mostly to handle oil from the Bakken oil fields. The company is seeking state approval for the project.
  • A $7 billion replacement of Enbridge’s old Line No. 3 to nearly double the capacity of oil shipped from northwestern Canada to Superior by replacing an old line with a new line. The route of the new line has not yet been determined. It’s not clear if the project will need federal approval because it is replacing an existing line, but the company said it will seek state approval in Minnesota.
  • Construction of additional storage tanks in Superior to add millions of gallons of capacity. Two new tanks are being built and three more are in the works.