- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission meets Thursday to make some important decisions on how it will proceed with Enbridge Energy’s proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota across Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin.

The decisions will also affect Enbridge’s proposal to replace its aging Line 3 pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to Superior because Enbridge wants the new line to partially follow Sandpiper’s route. The path forward became murky in September when the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that Sandpiper needs a full environmental review, and the PUC now faces a complicated web of issues to work out.

Here’s a look at some of the key parts:

THE PIPELINES

Enbridge Energy wants to build the 616-mile Sandpiper pipeline to carry light crude oil, much of which is currently is shipped by rail. Enbridge separately plans to replace its Line 3 pipeline, which runs 1,097 miles, was built in the 1960s and is operating at reduced capacity for safety reasons. The two projects overlap because Enbridge wants the Line 3 replacement to follow the same route as Sandpiper from its terminal in Clearbrook, Minnesota, to Superior, rather than its crowded existing corridor.

THE COURTS

The PUC granted a certificate of need for Sandpiper in June, but the Court of Appeals ruled in September that the commission should have completed an environmental impact statement before making that decision. The Minnesota Supreme Court let that decision stand Tuesday. The appeals court ruling created considerable uncertainty among the commissioners and the project’s supporters and opponents over what’s next. The PUC had planned on conducting a fuller environmental review later, during a separate set of state regulatory proceedings on what route Sandpiper should take.

WHAT ENBRIDGE WANTS

Enbridge and its North Dakota Pipeline Company subsidiary wants to begin construction as soon as possible, and have urged the PUC to proceed with a full EIS in hopes of eliminating uncertainty and further delays. They also want the certificate-of-need proceedings combined with the route permit proceedings, and have asked the PUC to complete the EIS and make its final decisions within 12 months.

WHAT PIPELINE OPPONENTS WANT

Sandpiper’s opponents include the Sierra Club, Friends of the Headwaters, Carlton County Land Stewards, the Mille Lacs and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe. They say the pipeline poses an unacceptable risk of oil spills in environmentally sensitive areas of northern Minnesota. Their recommendations on how to proceed aren’t identical, but in general they support doing a thorough EIS and keeping the certificate-of-need and route proceedings separate.

THE OPTIONS

One key question for the PUC will be whether to rejoin Sandpiper’s certificate-of-need and route proceedings, which the PUC separated last year in hopes of giving fuller consideration to alternative routes. The commissioners also have to decide how to proceed with the environmental review and consider how alternative routes might figure into all that.

What the PUC does about Sandpiper will affect Line 3, since Enbridge wants them to share the same route. But the commission staff has recommended against combining the Sandpiper and Line 3 proceedings as some opponents have suggested. The PUC could, however, decide to postpone action on Line 3 until it makes its final decisions on Sandpiper.

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