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Pete Langr: If Enbridge's pipeline is built, you lose

In April, shareholders of Allete (the parent company of Minnesota Power) received a letter from CEO Donald Shippar. The letter was to the point, asking that shareholders consider membership in a lobbying organization.

In April, shareholders of Allete (the parent company of Minnesota Power) received a letter from CEO Donald Shippar. The letter was to the point, asking that shareholders consider membership in a lobbying organization.

"As our industry continues to change," it said, "it is important that utility shareholders be heard by the legislators and regulators whose decisions affect their investments."

Although the letter seemed to be more concerned with minor state issues, it is probable that any Allete investor who is paying attention -- and I am one of them -- has questions about what will happen to his or her investment. This is because Minnesota Power, which generates the majority of its electricity from coal (which spews global warming gases into the atmosphere), could easily be a big loser if a strong climate-change bill passes in Washington.

Simply put, a strong climate-change law could dramatically decrease the value of hundreds of millions of dollars of Minnesota Power's investment in coal-burning infrastructure.

Global-warming naysayers aside, such a law from Washington would be the right thing to do. The trick, for Congress, is going to be how to eliminate the coal-burning infrastructure without wiping out the investors.

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Currently, there are reported to be roughly 2,300 lobbyists in Washington trying to influence that legislation.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Enbridge Energy Partners is in the very late stages of planning for two new oil pipelines to Alberta's oil-producing tar sands. This tar-sand oil is some of the most pollutive oil in production. Most oil is much cleaner than coal, but this oil, from a pollution standpoint, is more like liquid coal.

To date, Enbridge Energy Partners has almost every permit it needs for the pipeline, including a certificate of need from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Construction of the pipeline is scheduled to start this summer.

Not if the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has its way, however. The MCEA is suing the PUC, alleging that the PUC did not follow the proper procedures in granting the permit, along with not performing a proper environmental review, as required by law. In addition, the MCEA alleges that the pipeline is not needed and so should not be approved.

Unfortunately, the question of need can no longer be challenged in court.

But it is precisely the question of need that ought to be challenged. All of us, including the PUC, should be wondering if the pipeline should be built when the U.S. demand for imported oil is expected to be stable or fall over the next 20 years. We should question whether a new pipeline for filthy oil is needed when Congress is trying to figure out a way to cut global warming emissions. We should wonder why we need this pipeline to help suck more of our energy dollars out of the country. We should question why we would build this pipeline when we are so close to beginning to wean ourselves from imported oil, and replacing much of it with renewable fuels, a smart electric grid and vehicles that use little or no gasoline.

Finally, we should wonder why we should invest in dirty fuel when money invested in fuel-efficient vehicles is usually more than made up by their energy savings, when Minnesota Power now reports that money invested in wind power produces cheaper electricity than money invested in coal power and when money invested in energy-efficient buildings is more than paid for by energy savings.

Without a lawsuit, we are unlikely to get any answers to these questions.

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Allete's investors may have a strong argument for lobbying the government for relief from pending federal legislation. Allete's coal-burning investments were made in good faith, when there was little concern about global warming. It wouldn't seem fair to retroactively devastate investors.

Enbridge Energy Partners can make no such case. Its business plan is to knowingly bring dirty fuel that is probably not needed into the United States. Then, it will lobby in Washington to make sure its investment pays off.

Enbridge investors will probably make money. A few hundred temporary pipeline construction jobs will be created. The rest of us will get more dirty fuel, a continued addiction to imported oil and another lobbyist in Washington trying to keep Congress from doing what's good for us.

If this pipeline is built, you lose.

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Pete Langr lives and works in Duluth. E-mail him at petelangr@msn.com .

Related Topics: MINNESOTA POWER
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