With the ousting of Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley on Sept. 11, the state’s Republican-controlled Senate has now fired two members of Gov. Tim Walz’s cabinet in less than a month. Outgoing Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink failed confirmation in August. Both public servants lost their positions by a narrow, two-vote margin.
Only two governor-appointed commissioners had previously failed the perfunctory confirmation process between 2008 and 2019. As a result, much attention has rightly been paid to the polarization of the state’s Senate chamber. To date, the Senate’s actions have been ascribed to issues ranging from bitterness over the governor’s handling of COVID-19 to election-year politics.
To write off the dismissal of Commissioner Kelley with such broad strokes would be a mistake, however. The real culprit is Big Oil, which throughout the process has insisted on steamrolling through government checkpoints in its urgency to begin construction of the Line 3 Replacement Project.
On Aug. 19, Kelley’s Department of Commerce formally refiled its court challenge against the proposed construction of the Enbridge oil pipeline, a $2.9 billion project. The move was consistent with previous departmental objections dating to Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration. The Commerce Department, then and now, has argued that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission was in error when it granted a certificate of need to Enbridge, because the Canadian energy company “didn’t introduce, and so the commission could not evaluate the accuracy of, a long-term demand forecast.”
When the PUC granted Enbridge a certificate of need in May, it relied upon a number of forecasts indicating that “oil supply would continue to increase throughout the forecast period,” in addition to other evidence that the available oil supply would be “equal to or less than demand.”
However, no adequate forecast of demand was provided, which led PUC Commissioner Matt Schuerger to issue a dissenting opinion on the commission’s ruling. Similar to his colleagues in the Commerce Department, Commissioner Schuerger expressed concern over the failure to account for the shift away from oil through international governmental efforts to address climate change.
Commissioner Kelley knew these issues were never addressed, and his responsibility to Minnesotans demanded that he speak up. As he later stated, "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.”
On Aug. 19, the Department of Commerce did its job by again challenging the Public Utilities Commission. That same day, Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, issued harsh criticism for the department’s actions. Three weeks later, under Sen. Gazelka’s leadership, Kelley was fired.
In the wake of the vote to dismiss Commissioner Kelley, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, seemed to capture the perspective of many opposing Senate Republicans, writing off Kelley’s legal challenge as a “waste of state resources.”
It is perplexing to think that checks and balances within the executive branch of government would ever be regarded as needless or wasteful, yet that is exactly how they were described by Senate Republicans and a few Senate DFLers critical of the Democratic Walz administration. Minnesotans expect the business community to follow the rules, and lawmakers should want to keep as many circuit breakers as possible to ensure good governance. Enbridge doesn’t deserve a participation trophy just because the process has taken a while to play out.
The elephant in the room for the Commerce Department has always been the push for Line 3, despite the failure of proponents to demonstrate demand. And that elephant grew in 2020 amid the economic challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, which at its worst drove the benchmark price of oil into the negatives. The crippled oil industry has struggled to dig itself out of a massive hole as economies worldwide determine which shifts in work, travel, and energy consumption will remain permanent.
Pipeline proponents know this, and they need to score a political and policy victory before the long-term prospects of Line 3 get any worse. Enbridge and its political allies have for years been trying to bluff their way through a losing hand by playing a dubious “jobs” card and talking up the safety of an unnecessary new pipeline. Steve Kelley called their bluff, and now he’s gone.
The question that remains is whether Gov. Walz remains willing to support the Commerce Department and the integrity of the process it represents. Or will he be intimidated into backing down and quietly allowing Line 3 to become one of the greatest economic and environmental failures in Minnesota’s history?
Brett Benson of St. Paul is the communications director for the climate justice group MN350. This article was also signed by Bret Pence of Duluth, an organizer with Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.