Court overturns initial state Sandpiper approval, orders environmental study
ST. PAUL—Minnesota regulators must rewind their work on the Sandpiper crude oil pipeline after a state Appeals Court panel Monday overturned a June decision that the project is needed.
The judicial panel ruled that a comprehensive environmental study about the pipeline's impact as it crosses northern Minnesota — including Carlton County — must be completed before the state Public Utilities Commission decides the pipeline is needed.
The decision means that after the environmental impact statement is completed, the commission may reconsider issuing the "certificate of need" it already approved on June 5. If it is approved again, the commission may proceed to approve a specific route.
The court ruling's impact on Sandpiper was not immediately clear. State and pipeline company officials said they are evaluating the court decision and offered no specific comments on how it could affect the construction timeline or whether the ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
"The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is reviewing today’s Minnesota Court of Appeals opinion ... in consultation with the Minnesota attorney general’s office," PUC Executive Secretary Dan Wolf said in a Monday email to Forum News Service. "The commission will be carefully evaluating its options and considering how to proceed relative to next steps and timeline."
A spokeswoman for Enbridge Energy Partners, the company proposing the new pipeline, said the company feels it is the safest way to transport crude oil.
"The prior direction from the state was that there is sufficient environmental review within each phase of the regulatory process..." Enbridge's Lorraine Little said. "We will evaluate our options for next steps with this important project.”
An Enbridge subsidiary plans a pipeline from western North Dakota's Bakken oilfields to an Enbridge hub in Superior, Wis., including 300 miles across northern Minnesota.
Enbridge plans the Sandpiper to transport up to 375,000 barrels a day in part of the pipe. The $2.6 billion project was to start moving oil in two years.
Pipeline supporters say the project would provide a safe way to transport the volatile crude, safer than railcars.
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. They say they fear oil spills and other environmental impacts.
"Wonderful news" is how the group responded to the court on its Facebook page. "We are hopeful that the decision's ramifications are as consequential as we think they could be."
The three-judge Appeals Court panel agreed with the friends organization, saying that state law requires a "rigorous and detailed" environmental review to come before any major official actions are taken on the project.
State law requires that to "ensure its use in the decision-making process, the environmental impact statement shall be prepared as early as practical in the formulation of an action,” the judges wrote
The U.S. Supreme Court has made similar decisions, the Appeals Court ruling said.
The PUC planned to conduct the environmental review as part of its study of exactly where the pipeline would be located.
Normally, the PUC considers the need for a project and the route of a pipeline at the same time. But for Sandpiper, commissioners opted to approve the need first, then take up the specific route.
Examining potential route alternatives were part of the certificate of need process.
After the June 5 pipeline approval, PUC officials said multiple hearings would be scheduled, including some in northern Minnesota, to get information about the pipeline's impact. The environmental study also was to begin soon.
North Dakota officials have approved the pipeline's construction in their state.
Sandpiper is a different project than the so-called Line 3 replacement project, another Enbridge oil pipeline that would take a similar route across northern Minnesota. It is being contested in federal court.