ST. PAUL - Gov. Mark Dayton supports a pipeline to carry North Dakota crude oil across northern Minnesota, but Thursday said it is not his role to get involved in the details.
His comments came after House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, tried to link the Democratic governor to a Monday state Appeals Court ruling that told state regulators they must conduct an environmental study of the Sandpiper pipeline project before making any major decision about it.
Enbridge Energy Partners proposes the pipeline across northern North Dakota and Minnesota to carry crude oil to the company's Superior, Wis., hub. It was supposed to be finished in two years, but the court ruling left the timeline uncertain.
Dayton, who testified Thursday in a Virginia hearing about the future of the Army, said in a prepared statement that Daudt should know better than to blame him for decisions made by the courts and Public Utilities Commission.
"I support the need for the Sandpiper pipeline," Dayton said. "However, I properly defer to the PUC and the Court of Appeals to determine procedures for the authorization and routing of this important pipeline."
Also Thursday, Enbridge said it remains committed to the pipeline, the first significant reaction since the court ruling.
"We remain fully committed to advancing this important project," Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little said. "The state of Minnesota, through the Minnesota Public Utility Commission clearly indicated that the Sandpiper pipeline project is needed."
On Friday, Enbridge officials appear before a state administrative law judge to discuss setting a schedule of hearings and other work needed before state regulators can decide whether to approve a specific route for the pipeline.
However, before the state can approve a route, the court ruled that it must conduct the environmental study and take a new vote about whether the pipeline is needed.
The PUC normally combines two decisions on major projects such as Sandpiper: whether it is needed and what route it would take. For Sandpiper, the commission split the two decisions and voted June 5 that the pipeline is needed.
During the routing process, an environmental study was to be conducted.
Little said that Enbridge is hopeful the PUC can set "reasonable milestones" to keep the project on track.
Friends of the Headwaters, a citizen’s group with the goal of protecting natural resources in the Lake Itasca area, filed the lawsuit asking that the certificate of need be delayed. The Appeals Court ruled that state law requires the environmental study before any major decisions are made, including the June 5 PUC vote that granted the certificate.
Tom Watson of the Friends of the Headwaters, and a former Republican official, sent a letter to Daudt complaining that a pipeline through pristine northern Minnesota could hurt the tourism industry.
Hubbard, Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin counties, which would host part of the pipeline, receive $500 million a year of tourism revenue and the industry employs 17,500 people, Watson said, which could be endangered with pipeline construction.
Little said the pipeline has lots of backers in the area. "Support from labor unions, counties, communities, legislators, state and industry associations and landowners is strong and growing."
House Energy Chairman Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Daudt said a pipeline is a much safer way to transport oil than trains.
Garofalo said building the Sandpiper is an easy decision because it would create jobs and make the state safer.
The representative said that he wants Dayton to urge the PUC to return to its traditional process of looking into the need for a pipeline and the route at the same time.
PUC Executive Secretary Dan Wolf on Thursday said the commission is considering its legal options in light of the Monday court decision.
The PUC had planned to combine hearings about the need for the pipeline and its specific route, but commissioners decided such a combination would be too confusing to the public.
Environmentalists and two Dayton agencies backed the decision to split the process after commissioners twice had rejected the concept. Enbridge opposed the split, saying it would confuse the public and delay the project.
The PUC has only considered five pipeline projects in the past 15 years, Wolf said, and "each one is unique as to its own set of facts, considerations and analysis."