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Mineral exploration poses challenge to pipeline

As the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) prepared to review an application Thursday from Enbridge Energy that would pave the way for a new crude oil pipeline, it was clear a number of battle lines had already been drawn. 

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Early on, members of a group known as the Carlton County Land Stewards objected to the company’s initial route proposal that would have taken part of the new Sandpiper Pipeline across a number of organic and other farmlands, wetlands and forests. But even as Enbridge conceded that an alternate route would be considered, an even greater challenge was mounted to the application.    

Kennecott Exploration Company, who has operated mineral exploration operations in western Carlton and eastern Aitkin counties since 2001 (known as the Tamarack Project), filed comments with the PUC on Dec. 5 regarding the pipeline proposal. Not only did Kennecott question the completeness of Enbridge’s application for a certificate of need and route permit but it charged that the project has the potential to adversely affect Kennecott’s non-ferrous metallic mineral interests and other environmentally sensitive property it has acquired in Carlton and Aitkin counties.

According to the official record posted on the PUC website, in its comments Kennecott argued that Enbridge’s application for a pipeline route permit is not complete because it did not contain sufficient information regarding the “potential human and environmental impacts” of the proposed project as required by Minnesota statute. 

Among other things, Kennecott contended that Enbridge was unclear in the applications as to what the potential impact of the pipeline might be on sensitive wild rice beds located on land Kennecott acquired between the Savanna State Forest and the McGregor Wildlife Management area, with an eye toward preservation and use as a buffer zone. Kennecott also called into question the pipeline’s potential impact on threatened and endangered species and their habitat in that area as well.

One of the key challenges made in Kennecott’s comments to the PUC, however, concerned the proposed pipeline’s likely effect on the significance of the mineral resources and associated future development potential of Kennecott’s Tamarack Project if the pipeline is routed through that area as signified in the current proposal. 

On Dec. 16, Enbridge filed comments in response to those filed by Kennecott, referring to sections of the route permit application that it claimed provide the information that Kennecott asserted was either missing or insufficient with regard to the potential human and environmental impacts of the proposed project.

Enbridge also added that it has consulted with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MnDNR) regarding state administered lands potentially crossed by the project, and with MnDNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning the potential presence of threatened and endangered species in the vicinity of the project.

With regard to Kennecott’s concerns related to mineral resources that potentially stand to be impacted by the proposed pipeline route, Enbridge acknowledged that “the future use of some mineral resources may indeed be precluded by the project” and that it would be required “to compensate for any hindrance that would preclude extraction activities where existing surface mineral facilities exist.”

Enbridge also indicated that it is involved in ongoing consultation with Kennecott regarding the proposed route across the state-owned land and mineral leases in question.

In further comments on the pipeline project recorded with the PUC, on Dec. 12, 2013, the Laborers’ District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota (an affiliation of seven labor unions representing various industry construction sectors, including pipelines) filed comments in response to Kennecott’s concerns over the completeness of Enbridge’s application. The Council argued that Kennecott’s concerns do not apply to application completeness and would be more properly addressed during the contested case proceedings, where the merits of the pipeline proposal itself can be considered.

The input of all of these entities will be considered by the PUC at Thursday’s hearing in St. Paul as it concerns Enbridge’s application for the certificate of need and route proposal for the Sandpiper line. At the conclusion of the hearing, the PUC can either rule on the completeness of the application and move the procedure ahead or send it back to Enbridge for further refinement.

Representatives of Kennecott Exploration declined to make any further statement on the matter when contacted Tuesday, saying their comments in the PUC’s public record would stand for themselves until after Thursday’s hearing. 

Enbridge representatives took a similar stance, with company spokesperson Christine Davis stating merely, “We are aware of Kennecott’s filing in the Sandpiper Pipeline Project application with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. We value our relationship with each and every landowner. We are focused on Thursday’s MN-PUC meeting and are hopeful that our Sandpiper Pipeline Project application will be deemed complete at that time.”