Weather Forecast


Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota could take new route

DULUTH, Minn. -- Janaki Fisher-Merritt said he was surprised in recent weeks to get letters from Enbridge Energy asking to survey his family's Carlton County farm for a possible new oil pipeline route.

Fisher-Merritt had heard about Enbridge plans to expand existing pipelines across northeastern Minnesota to carry more Canadian and North Dakota oil east and south. But he assumed the new oil would flow along the existing pipeline route and not across the woods on his land.

"This was out of the blue. We're a couple miles from any other pipeline, and we hadn't heard they were looking for new routes," he said, echoing several of his Wrenshall-area neighbors.

Indeed, Enbridge's proposed Sandpiper pipeline, one of several oil pipeline projects planned for the region, may follow an entirely new route from Clearbrook in northwestern Minnesota to Superior, Wis. Much of that corridor would be along other utility lines, such as electric lines. But part of it is not.

"We're still in the early stages with Sandpiper," said Lorraine Little, an Enbridge spokeswoman in Duluth-Superior. "We're looking at two options at this point, and the southerly option is along a new corridor for us."

An open house to explain the project is set for Monday in the Village of Superior Hall and should offer a view of the routes being considered, including which properties might be affected, Little said.

Little said regulators require the company to have route options when the pipeline is submitted for approval, probably sometime later this year, although the company will by then have a preferred route. Landowners along the line should have received two sets of letters from company representatives who are surveying the routes for engineering and environmental concerns.

Carlton County residents like Fisher-Merritt can be excused for not keeping up on all of the proposed pipelines and pipeline expansions across the region as Enbridge and other companies develop new ways to move an ever-increasing amount of oil from North Dakota and northwestern Canada to energy-hungry markets in the Eastern U.S.

In all, Enbridge plans to spend about $11 billion in the next few years greatly expanding its capacity to move oil through the U.S. -- some $4 billion of that in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota alone, with Superior as the hub.

Those projects include:

-- The 610-mile, $2.5 billion Sandpiper pipeline, which would run from Beaver Lodge in northwestern North Dakota's Bakken oil field to Superior. This entirely new pipeline is planned to follow an existing line across North Dakota. But from Clearbrook, Minn., to Superior the line could either follow the existing Enbridge corridor or a new, more southerly route across land where owners haven't dealt with pipelines before.

Even if it follows the existing route, already home to six Enbridge pipelines, Enbridge officials say they would have to expand their current right-of way to make room, acquiring more property from landowners along the way.

The southerly route would be along some existing utility corridors but would also cross land where no pipelines exist, Enbridge's Little said. Those landowners are getting letters explaining the process and seeking written permission for both civil and environmental surveyors to go on their land, she said.

The Sandpiper project is still in the planning stages and still must clear regulatory agencies in Minnesota and North Dakota and pass an environmental review with state and federal natural resource agencies. Enbridge hopes to go the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission with an official plan this year, with construction starting in late 2014 and oil running through the all-new pipeline by 2016.

The new line would carry 225,000 barrels a day through North Dakota but would then merge with other sources of oil and carry 375,000 barrels a day from Clearbrook to Superior, Little said. That's 15.75 million gallons of oil each day.

Enbridge suffered a partial setback on Sandpiper in March, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied the company's request to set tolls for oil moved through the new line. But the company said it is moving ahead despite the ruling.

-- Expansion of the Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs from Hardesty, Alberta, to Superior, the U.S. portion of which was completed in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion. While sometimes reported as a new pipeline, the project is really a $240 million effort to increase the amount of oil running through the existing pipe. Enbridge is planning a series of pump station and other upgrades to increase capacity from the current 450,000 barrels a day to 570,000 barrels a day in the first phase and to 800,000 barrels a day by 2016 -- about the same as the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline and carrying the same kind of oil.

The first phase of the Alberta Clipper expansion was approved in July by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which has not yet acted on the second phase. The project still must clear a supplemental environmental review by the U.S. State Department, which has regulatory authority over pipelines that cross the U.S. border.

-- Expansion of the Southern Access pipeline across Wisconsin from Superior to Flanagan, Ill. This, too, is an increase-in-capacity project for an existing line, also in two phases, totaling more than $1.9 billion. Also known as Line 61, the Southern Exposure line was originally completed in 2008. The new effort would increase capacity in the line from 400,000 to 1.2 million barrels a day.

-- A $100 million expansion of the cross-Michigan line, referred to as Pipeline 5 -- it runs from Superior across the Upper Peninsula to lower Michigan -- from 491,000 to 541,000 barrels a day. The expansion, recently completed, will help move the huge increase in oil coming into Superior out to refineries in eastern states and eastern Canada.

-- An $80 million project increasing the capacity of Enbridge's Superior Terminal, including adding about 1.3 million barrels of storage with two above-ground oil tanks, along with associated piping and equipment. The terminal currently receives more than 1.5 million barrels of crude a day, houses 40 storage tanks and has the capacity to store 8.5 million barrels. Construction of the two new 625,000-barrel storage tanks is underway in the Superior tank farm. They're the largest tanks ever built in Enbridge's U.S. system; each tank will hold 26.25 million gallons of crude oil.

U.S. an oil exporter?

Enbridge is moving fast to handle the huge increase in oil being produced in North America. Canada already is the largest source of oil imported into the U.S., and the U.S. itself is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia in oil production, largely due to Texas and North Dakota oil, by 2020, the International Energy Agency forecasts.

By 2030, if trends continue, the IEA says the U.S. will become a net exporter of oil, producing more than it uses. All that oil has to move somehow. And while railroads and Great Lakes ships might be a temporary fix, experts say increased pipeline capacity is the likely long-term solution.

"We're coming to a point in the U.S. where I never dreamed we would be: where North America can depend on only North American crude to meet all of its demand," said Mark Sitek, vice president of major projects for Enbridge Energy Co. Inc. USA. "Enbridge is right in the middle of a huge amount of (new oil production) in western Canada and North Dakota, and we're uniquely situated to take advantage of that production."

Sitek said Enbridge ultimately hopes to connect its northern lines with refineries in Texas and Louisiana, where most of the nation's oil is refined. It's also where oil and refined products could eventually be shipped overseas, reversing the trend of the last 50 years.

The Sandpiper project specifically will help bring North Dakota oil east to refineries, including in Minnesota and Wisconsin, that provide the fuels we use every day. More oil from more sources could mean more stable production and, some say, pricing.

Enbridge also touts the massive influx of construction jobs for the big project. The $1.2 billion Alberta Clipper project that finished in March 2010 included some 3,000 construction workers -- the biggest, most expensive private construction job in Minnesota history. The project pumped millions of dollars into the northeastern Minnesota economy as workers -- some local, many from out of state -- rented rooms, bought groceries and visited local taverns and restaurants.

Sandpiper, Enbridge says, would be as big an economic generator.

And the company reminds residents of the region that they are among the largest taxpayers in every county they cross. In St. Louis County, a Duluth News Tribune review found, Enbridge already ranks third in most taxes paid each year at $3.7 million, based on the value of those pipelines. That number would go even higher if the Sandpiper line and Alberta Clipper upgrades are built.

So far, less opposition

Some residents in the area of the new Sandpiper path are worried that valuable agricultural land and wooded areas may be gobbled up. Some say the pipeline, if regulators determine it's needed at all, should follow existing lines.

Mark Thell, a beef farmer and Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, said he's concerned that much of the possible pipeline route is in the Nemadji River watershed, where local, state and federal projects have worked for years to plant trees to curb erosion in an effort to stop the river from turning muddy brown whenever it rains.

"Our goal is to get the Nemadji watershed to 60 percent forested, or more, and this would be going the wrong way. You can't have trees over a pipeline," Thell said. "I'd really hope if they have to do this, they can follow an existing corridor, like the Soo Line (railroad), and not tear up more land."

Compared to the national debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from northwestern Canada into the U.S., there has been far less attention focused on Enbridge's combined plans that ultimately would move far more oil than Keystone XL.

Environmental groups strongly oppose increasing the amount of tar sands oil from Canada flowing into the U.S., saying the process of extracting the oil, plus the increased refining it requires, make it the "dirtiest" crude oil available. The billions spent on pipelines, they say, would be better spent developing alternative energies.

Possibility of spills

There's also always the danger of oil spills, opponents of new pipelines say, no matter what kind of oil is inside the pipe. Environmental groups, using federal data, say Enbridge was responsible for more than 800 spills in the U.S. and Canada between 1999 and 2010, totaling almost 7 million gallons of oil.

The biggest spill was near Michigan's Kalamazoo River in July 2010, when a pipeline that connects to the Alberta Clipper burst, sending more than 1 million gallons of oil into the river. Enbridge is still working on the cleanup, and earlier this month it asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an extension to complete dredging of the Kalamazoo River, saying it would be unable to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to finish the cleanup.

In 2010 the News Tribune reported that over the previous 30 years, nearly 1.5 million gallons of oil had spilled out of Enbridge pipelines in northern Minnesota, much of it into wetlands and some of it close to the Mississippi River. In one case, tens of thousands of spilled gallons were set on fire to avoid causing more serious environmental damage.

The government data reviewed by the News Tribune showed 145 of those spills occurred since the company became Enbridge, though only 10 were greater than 1,000 gallons. One of the Enbridge lines was a particular problem in past years: a 34-inch pipe that was the source of most of the state's major oil spills in recent years. It's the line that exploded in 2007, killing two workers near Clearbrook, and it's the pipe that caused one of the state's largest-ever spills in 1991 near Grand Rapids.

Environmental groups have said little about the Sandpiper proposal, however, saving their ammunition for Keystone XL and, to a lesser extent, the Alberta Clipper expansion -- mostly because those lines will be moving tar sands oil, and because they require U.S. State Department approval, making them ripe for political debate.

Paul Densmore of the group Minnesota said his organization is against any expansion of the pipeline system that encourages fossil fuel use because it can only add to greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists say are spurring global climate change. Moreover, Densmore said Americans already are cutting their use of gas and oil and that there is no compelling need for more oil, more pipelines or the spill risk they bring.

"Unfortunately, we have limited resources and we are not able to advocate effectively against every pipeline," Densmore said. "So, though we are against the Sandpiper, we may not be able to mount a strong campaign against it."