More than 400 gather to offer views on replacing Enbridge pipeline in northern Minn.

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BEMIDJI, Minn. — Conflicting priorities clashed during two meetings Tuesday, Oct. 17, to gather public input for Enbridge Energy's proposed Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project.

More than 400 people attended as community members testified in front of administrative law judge Ann O'Reilly, who will compile the comments and make a recommendation to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission about the project moving forward.

Bill Grant, deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Commerce, said the comments made at previous public meetings largely fell into two categories.

"I would say on the proponent's side we've heard a lot of people talk about how much of a reliance we continue to have on oil, and how important it is to the state's economy that it continue to flow. We've heard a lot about the jobs that would be created by the project, the need for jobs in this area," Grant said. "On the opponent's' side, we've heard a lot about the concerns about an oil spill and what that would mean to the pristine waters of northern Minnesota."

The Department of Commerce recently came out against the replacement project and said at Tuesday's meetings that it did not feel that Enbridge demonstrated a need.

The current Line 3, built in the 1960s, runs from Alberta, Canada, through northern Minnesota to Superior, Wis. Enbridge hopes to decommission the aging line and build a new one; many environmental groups and community activists oppose the plan.

Enbridge's preferred route would take the new pipeline through ceded treaty territories and wild rice beds important to local bands of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Before Enbridge can build a new Line 3 and decommission the old one, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission must issue a certificate of need and the necessary permits. The commission must consider the final environmental impact statement compiled by the Department of Commerce and released in August.

The series of meetings presided over by Judge O'Reilly began Sept. 26 in Thief River Falls and are set to end Oct. 26 in St. Cloud. Trial-like evidentiary hearings will start in St. Paul Nov. 1 and could continue through Nov. 15. Following the hearings, O'Reilly will go over the accumulated record and issue a findings of fact and conclusions of law to aid the PUC in its decision.

Tuesday's meetings, held in Bemidji's Sanford Center, attracted a number of public figures, including Minnesota House Reps. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, and Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, as well as Clearwater County Commissioner Daniel Stenseng, who all spoke in favor of the replacement project.

"The current Line 3 is degraded, running at reduced capacity. The oil has to get to market," Grossell said. "I'm here to support the jobs that it'll bring, and not necessarily just the jobs, but also the ancillary businesses... One has to remember that this is a $2 billion, privately funded project, no government money that's going to be going into it. It's a privately funded project, and it's going to be bringing that to the Minnesota economy."

According to the final environmental impact statement, construction of a new Line 3 along Enbridge's preferred route would require up to 4,200 workers. At least half of those must be hired from local union halls.

But anti-pipeline activists and speakers questioned the number of jobs the pipeline would provide, and encouraged the judge to prioritize environmental considerations over economic ones.

"What's at stake here is the wild rice, the water and our way of life," said Sheldon Schoenborn. "I see more than just money here, this ain't about the money. This is about the seventh generation from today. ... This ain't about how many jobs we get or whatever, that's only for the moment."

Others speaking in support of the project said the new pipeline would protect the environment, not put it at risk.

"Protesting pipelines seems to make some people feel important by picking fights with the big guys, even though pipelines are the safest way to transport the crude oil," said Jerome Grudem, who lives north of Park Rapids. "The pipeline companies exist to make a profit for their stockholders and themselves. When they spend billions of dollars to generate future profits, they will not put themselves at risk with substandard installations that would expose them to catastrophes."

Though the last Enbridge-related meeting held in Bemidji saw a large contingent of pipeline supporters wearing lime green shirts reading "We support safe energy transportation," Enbridge employees eschewed the shirts Tuesday after the company received complaints that the outfits intimidated others. Other pipeline supporters continued to wear the shirts.

Donna Gaston, who spoke in opposition to the project, said she believes Enbridge and others can strike a balance between jobs and the environment.

"Most of us in here hold no judgement to those of you in here who work the pipelines. We appreciate that you work hard to support families," Gaston said. "If the right thing happens here and the Line 3 does not go forward, I personally would like to see you all continue to work by removing the old pipeline, rather than putting in a new one."