Any grace period Gov. Tim Walz had to ease into a bitter political fight over the construction of a new oil pipeline in northern Minnesota seemingly evaporated last week.
On Tuesday, Feb. 5, a judge tossed a lawsuit filed by former Gov. Mark Dayton aimed at preventing Enbridge’s proposed $2.6 billion Line 3 project. Dayton’s appeal was dismissed on something of a technicality — the court ruled the appeal was filed too early — and the resulting judgment said steps to restart the appeals process must be taken by Tuesday.
The order put new pressure on Walz to quickly take a side on an issue he has been quietly mulling since taking office in January. His eventual decision on the appeal has brought heightened attention to the issue and is sure to infuriate either supporters of the Line 3 project, who tout the jobs and economic development it could bring, or its opponents, who decry new fossil fuel infrastructure in the age of global warming and warn of future spills.
“I think it’s a huge moment” for the Walz administration early in his tenure, said state Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, the top Republican on the House’s environmental finance committee. “It’s certainly one of the largest private sector projects ever undertaken in the state of Minnesota.”
Walz’s position unknown
Enbridge, a Calgary-based energy company, is trying to build Line 3 as a substitute for a 1960s-era crude oil pipeline already running from Edmonton to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Enbridge operates several pipelines that pass through a northern Minnesota corridor.
The existing Line 3, however, is corroding and operating at roughly half capacity due in part to worries that it could leak. Enbridge is also currently under a federal consent decree to replace the U.S. portion of Line 3 with state permissions after a pair of 2010 oil spills in Michigan and Illinois.
The new Line 3, which would be larger and travel a new route along 337 miles of northern Minnesota, is on the brink of construction after receiving a Certificate of Need from state regulators on the independent Public Utilities Commission. It’s expected to carry roughly 760,000 barrels of oil each day to Superior.
But the state Department of Commerce under Dayton vehemently opposed the new pipeline and tried to stand in its way by appealing the PUC’s decision. The Commerce Department argued Enbridge had not cleared a legal bar by proving demand for the oil within Minnesota.
By Tuesday, the Walz administration must decide whether to file a petition for reconsideration on the PUC’s final decision in order to reserve its right to file an appeal. The PUC is expected to reject any petitions.
So where does Walz stand?
It’s complicated. In a pair of tweets in August of 2017, Walz said a theoretical Enbridge line traversing ceded treaty lands used by tribes to hunt, fish and gather wild rice was a “nonstarter,” and that a state-ordered environmental impact statement showed each route being considered for a new Line 3 by Enbridge “would disproportionately and adversely affect native people.”
The final route for the new Line 3, later approved by the PUC in 2018, crosses treaty land and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation outside of Cloquet, according to the Associated Press. The Fond du Lac Band struck a deal with Enbridge, although it has opposed the pipeline. (The existing Line 3 passes through the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s reservation, but the tribe has said it would not allow a replacement line on its land.)
Walz then told the Star Tribune on the campaign trail that he accepted the PUC’s decisions and has told MinnPost he generally wants natural resource projects approved by state regulators to move forward.
Since taking office, however, Walz hasn’t taken a concrete stance on Line 3. The governor declined requests for an interview last week, but his office issued a written statement on Wednesday saying the administration is “meeting with Minnesotans on all sides of this issue and working with the Department of Commerce to determine next steps in light of the court’s recent decision.”
Kristin Beckmann, Walz’s deputy chief of staff of communications, told a crowd of protesters at the Capitol on Friday that the administration was meeting with tribal leaders that afternoon and then advocacy groups later on before coming to a decision.
Walz doesn’t have unilateral power to stop the pipeline, and several environmental groups fighting Line 3 are sure to take steps to continue their own appeals independent of the governor. But many involved in the debate say the state’s chief executive can certainly sway a project and ignite public interest.
Seeking consensus where there’s been none
For that reason, Walz’s decision on whether to pursue a Line 3 lawsuit will represent a test for a governor who campaigned on a promise to find common ground between divided factions. On this issue, there’s been little consensus.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of the 5th District urged Walz to oppose the pipeline in a recent letter and many of her fellow DFLers, including Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, have also objected to the project. Tribes in northern Minnesota have largely been against a new Line 3, and last week four Catholic Workers were arrested for tampering with valves at an Enbridge site. Even Bernie Sanders weighed in late last month by appearing in a video with Honor the Earth, an organization dedicated to fighting the pipeline.
“Governor Walz has emphasized the need for our state to take action on climate, and this is his first opportunity to prove that he means it,” said Margaret Levin, director of the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter. “As the Department of Commerce’s expert analysis showed, Line 3 would be all risk and no benefit for Minnesota.”
Republicans have been essentially united in support of Line 3. GOP U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber recently said in a post on Twitter that he was opposed to a pipeline lawsuit, and 76 state lawmakers delivered a letter to Walz on Friday asking him not to pursue an appeal. Nearly all who signed were Republicans. But the issue hasn’t solely divided among party lines: Some DFLers and labor unions have supported Line 3.
Fabian said Walz is “in a tough spot” on the issue and being “tugged from two different directions.” But he predicted the economic possibilities for rural Minnesota and PUC approval would sway Walz.
To illustrate this, Fabian, a former teacher and track coach at Roseau High School, said he recently ran into a former student of his who is currently working as a union welder for Minnesota Power’s Great Northern Transmission Line. That project will bring hydropower from Manitoba to the Midwest. Fabian said his student asked if Line 3 was finally going to be built so he could “stick around here.”
“Economically for northwest Minnesota, it’s extremely important,” Fabian said.