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Commission places Sandpiper project on hold after court decision

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota regulators took the “wait and see approach” Thursday, staying its approval of an oil pipeline with potential courtroom battles looming.

The state Public Utilities Commission voted to suspend its approval of a key permit needed for the Sandpiper pipeline after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the commission erred in not conducting an environmental impact statement before granting a certificate of need.

Now, the commission and objecting parties will wait to see if project proposers and Enbridge subsidiary North Dakota Pipeline Company filed an appeal of the court ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court by the Oct. 14 deadline.

The Sandpiper is a proposed 600-plus mile pipeline that would run across North Dakota and northern Minnesota from the Bakken oil fields to an existing Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wis. Enbridge originally forecast construction to begin on the $2.6 billion project to begin in 2016, although prolonged proceedings may push back that timetable a year or more.

The ramifications of indefinitely staying its decision to wait for court proceedings weighed into the commission’s decision to ask petitioning parties to file reports after the court appeal deadline passes.

“I don’t want stalling to become the order of the day,” commissioner Betsy Wergen said. “I firmly believe we have timelines and statues that have already been exceeded ... I don’t want to see us become the federal government and just have things laying here. I want to be assured there will be movement forward rather than a three-year stay waiting for a Supreme Court decision.”

The decision to stay the certificate of need also means the North Dakota Pipeline Company’s motion to rejoin the certificate of need and route permitting proceedings will not come to pass. The commission has presided over only five oil pipeline projects in the last 15 years, but it traditionally has granted -- or denied -- both permits for pipeline projects at the same time.

Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.