ST. PAUL — Having just ousted one Minnesota cabinet member the week prior, state senators in a Friday, Aug. 21, virtual hearing questioned whether another member of Gov. Tim Walz's cabinet could keep his job.

The majority-Republican Senate committee grilled Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley over his department's recent decision to again appeal Enbridge's proposed Line 3 pipeline rebuilding project. Kelley was appointed to his seat by Walz, a Democrat, in January 2019.

Friday's hearing came roughly a week after Senate Republicans on Aug. 13 voted to oust state Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. Democrats decried the move, which they said was a surprise, as political backlash over Walz's coronavirus emergency orders. Republicans said the vote was cast based on concerns over Leppink's decisions while heading her department.

Now, senators are conducting hearings to review the positions of Kelley, as well as Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop next week. Senators could cast their votes to oust the commissioners as soon as next month.

Most of the time during Friday's hearing was devoted to questioning Kelley over his department's recently filed appeal against the plan to rebuild Line 3. The pipeline project has long been a source of debate in the Capitol and in northern Minnesota, with proponents saying the existing 60-year-old pipeline's infrastructure is too aged, and rebuilding it could spur jobs and economic growth. Opponents retort that the state should be moving away from fossil fuel use and infrastructure, supporting renewable energies instead, and that oil pipelines pose risk to the area's wildlife, waters and Indigenous lands.

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Senators on Friday alleged political motivations in the Department of Commerce's decision to appeal the project this month. Kelley denied politics, saying the decision was made because Enbridge failed to prove to the state a suitable demand for crude oil forecast over the course of the hypothetical new pipeline's life, as is required by Minnesota law.

"Why has the agency picked one side?" Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, asked Kelley. "You say you advocate for the public, and this is an issue that many people in the public are on both sides. And with this action, your agency has picked one side."

Kelley responded that he disagreed with Rarick's characterization. Instead, he said the department has picked to "carry out our responsibility to the law."

"Forces in society have lined things up, regrettably, so that this comes across as a conflict between environmental advocates and working people who are looking for jobs," Kelley said. "The statute does not take that side, either side of that. The statute that we’re looking at is not related to the environment and it’s not related to jobs. It’s related to whether there’ s a need for an energy facility of this kind."

He went on to say that if there is not a demonstrated need for the pipeline, consumers shouldn't have to pay for it.

Toward the close of the hearing, Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, flipped Republicans' accusations against Kelley onto them, saying they were, in fact, the ones "actually asking the commissioner to pick a side and make a decision based on politics and not the law." He went on to accuse committee members of holding "a kangaroo hearing."

"You had a list of people you wanted to ask specific, curated questions and you jumped right to them," Dibble said. "You didn’t give really any of us (Democrats) the opportunity and you’re cutting this hearing short. So clearly, it sounds like decisions have already been made. No matter what Commissioner Kelley said, the decision was made somewhere else about what’s ultimately going to become of this confirmation."

As for what does become of Kelley's confirmation, committee chairman Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, concluded the hearing saying it was only informational, with no official vote. But had they voted, he said, "I assume ... it would have probably been to move (Kelley's confirmation) forward without recommendation."

The full Senate can vote on Kelley's future job prospects next month.