- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The Minnesota Senate’s top leader warned Wednesday that Republican anger over the Walz administration’s continued opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline project could spill over into a confirmation hearing on Friday for Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley, whose job now appears in danger.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Kelley’s agency announced Tuesday they would appeal the latest decision by the independent Public Utilities Commission to approve Enbridge Energy’s plan to replace its aging Line 3 pipeline across northern Minnesota. Environmental and tribal groups that oppose the project are also appealing.

The GOP majority in the Senate last week ousted Walz’s labor and industry commissioner, Nancy Leppink, amid a long-simmering dispute over how the governor has relied on emergency powers to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, did not rule out Wednesday that Kelley might suffer the same fate over Line 3.

Gazelka declined to say said at a news conference whether Friday’s hearing would set the stage for firing Kelley. He noted that the hearing was already scheduled, and added that he had expressed concerns to the Walz administration as early as February over how Kelley has overseen the financial services industry. But he acknowledged that Friday’s hearing “became more important” after the decision on Line 3.

“The only time a commissioner should be removed is if they’re not doing their job. That’s the only time,” Gazelka said. “And I think we made the case that Commissioner Leppink was not doing her job.”

Gazelka said the appeal could delay the 4,200 well-paying construction jobs that Enbridge plans to create, plus spinoff jobs. And he said the safest way to transport the Canadian oil the pipeline carries is to build the replacement.

“The Commerce Department has been successful over the last 20 months in developing collaborative relationships with Minnesota businesses that ultimately benefit Minnesota consumers,” Kelley said in a response. “I am looking forward to the opportunity to tell that story.”

The governor’s office declined to comment.

The PUC first approved the certificate of need and route permits for the Line 3 replacement two years ago, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals sent the case back for more work on an environmental review. The PUC endorsed that update and approved the project for a second time earlier this year. Now the dispute is heading back to the appeals court. Commerce contends in its appeal that Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge has failed to submit legally adequate forecasts of future oil demand, an argument that the PUC rejected.

The Senate has withheld confirmation votes on most of Walz’s cabinet picks, letting them hold their jobs while preserving a lever of influence. Historically the Senate rarely removes cabinet members. The chamber’s next chance to vote is expected to come in mid-September, assuming the governor calls another special session so he can renew his emergency powers.

Unions that were allied with the governor criticized the appeal, sign of the split among Democrats on the project, while 16 Democratic legislators, mostly from the Twin Cities area, issued a statement applauding the decision.

“We are frustrated, angry, and bitterly disappointed,” Jason George, business manager of Local 49 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said in a statement. He accused the governor of departing from his stated vision of “One Minnesota where everyone’s views, not just those of Twin Cities activists, but of everyone in our state, are respected.”

Democratic Rep. Dave Lislegard, of Aurora, who tweeted Tuesday that “This isn’t the ‘One Minnesota’ we were promised,” affirmed that statement Wednesday saying many other Iron Rangers and and rural Minnesotans feel the same. He said in an interview that he’s deeply frustrated by a ”very disturbing pattern” of “delay, delay delay” to kill pipeline, mining and other projects that would create jobs in greater Minnesota.

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