ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline Thursday afternoon in a decision certain to spark lawsuits and set off protests around the state.
The hearing room was tense as commissioners explained their problems with and, ultimately, support for the pipeline, which will cross about 340 miles of northern Minnesota on its route from Alberta to the Enbridge terminal in Superior.
"We don't have the authority today to decide what is right; we have the authority to decide what the law and the record tell us," said PUC Vice Chair Dan Lipschultz.
Once it became clear how the five governor-appointed commissioners would vote, a woman stood and said: "You have just declared war on the Ojibwe people."
Enbridge has been working for more than three years to get the project approved. The company touts the project as a necessary infrastructure upgrade that will increase the safety of oil transportation across the state, while opponents say the line contributes to climate change, violates indigenous rights and is ultimately unnecessary.
The replacement pipeline will carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day, restoring Line 3 to its original capacity. Enbridge wanted to take a largely new route for the pipeline and leave most of the original 50-year-old Line 3 in the ground unless landowners wanted it removed.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the pipeline's route - a slightly modified version of Enbridge's preferred path. The company will work with the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa during the next two months to determine the path through or around the reservation. Commissioners Lipschultz and Katie Sieben voted against the route.
The PUC placed several conditions on the pipeline's approval to get more financial and environmental assurances from Enbridge. That was not enough to satisfy pipeline opponents, who already are preparing to fight back against Enbridge and the PUC.
Two groups, MN350 and Honor the Earth, announced plans to travel north and demonstrate along the Minnesota and Wisconsin border where Line 3 is expected to cross.
"What I'm proposing is that those who are able travel up tonight to be part of an action to show that we are going to stop this and we are not going home without doing that," Andy Pearson with MN350 said to the crowd of water protectors and other activists gathered outside Metro Square in St. Paul during a break in the hearings.
Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, said the response would mirror Standing Rock, a mass protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota that lasted months.
"We have asked people to come to Minnesota. ... We have said it's time for people to welcome water protectors," Winona LaDuke said during a press conference after the vote.
Duluth's Bob Schoneberger, founder of Minnesotans for Line 3, denounced the impending protests.
"Now that the project has been approved to move forward, we are now calling on Winona and her supporters to close these camps now, before people and communities here in Minnesota are hurt by what will be unlawful and unfortunately violent activities," Schoneberger said in a news release.
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Gov. Mark Dayton said that even with the certificate of need the PUC granted Thursday, Enbridge has many more hoops to jump through before construction can start in the state.
"Those regulatory reviews, which address numerous issues not considered by the PUC, will take months to complete," Dayton said in a statement. "Approvals are by no means assured."
Commissioners were torn about their decision and stressed through an emotional hearing their hands were tied.
"Sometimes we have to make decisions we don't aspirationally agree with, because of the rule of law," Commissioner John Tuma said.
PUC Chair Nancy Lange, who at one point wiped tears from her eyes, explained she could not live with the possibility of the old pipeline leaking if it were to remain in the ground.
Commissioner Lipschultz said the oil delivered by Line 3 is, for now, needed for transportation purposes in the state and region. He urged pipeline opponents to look at that need as they oppose such projects in the future.
"It's addressing demand so that pipelines aren't needed anymore," he said.
This story will be updated.