William Sanson says he has worked on pipelines since he was a teenager and has risen through the ranks to become a project foreman and superintendent.
Testifying at a public hearing Monday in St. Paul on the proposed $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline project through three states, the native of southern Minnesota tried to convince project foes that modern oil pipelines are safe and effective.
“When you hear these nightmare scenarios about pipelines blowing out, that is older line — or someone has done something awful stupid,” he said before a packed house at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission hearing.
Not everyone is convinced. Many testifiers spoke in opposition to the pipeline, including Paige Carlson, an 18-year-old University of Minnesota student, who says the project would feed a fossil fuel industry that’s polluting the earth.
“I am appealing to you now as another justly angry citizen, but more so as someone who sits awake at night, because we are destroying the place we live,” Carlson said, choking back tears.
Sanson and Carlson were among the dozens of people who commented on North Dakota Pipeline Co.’s proposed pipeline, which would deliver Bakken oil on a 612-mile journey from Tioga, North Dakota, to Superior, Wisconsin. The pipeline, measuring 24 to 30 inches in diameter, would cut through nine Minnesota counties, with a stopover in Clearbrook, Minnesota, where a pump station is also planned.
North Dakota Pipeline Co. is a joint venture of Calgary-based Enbridge Energy Partners and Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is considering a request for a “certificate of need” for the project. As the name implies, the process determines if the project is needed and is in the public’s interest.
The meeting in St. Paul was one of five hearings that will take place across the state in the coming days.
Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, who presided over Monday’s hearing, plans to make a report and recommendation in April. The PUC will likely issue a decision by the third quarter of this year, said Dan Wolf, the PUC’s executive secretary.
Paul Eberth, a project director for Enbridge, said the project would include about 300 miles of pipeline in Minnesota, with a capacity to deliver up to 225,000 barrels per day.
Monday’s public meeting was a chance for regular folks to sound off on the project. Speakers ranged from teenage environmentalists to union workers and small business owners.
Project foes fear the pipeline will hasten climate change. Backers say it will bring good jobs to a struggling part of the state and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Sanson, the pipeline worker, said stronger materials, a well-trained workforce and strict oversight from inspectors and government regulators ensure that modern pipelines are safer and more reliable than those built decades ago.
A host of other union testifiers echoed those sentiments.
David LaBorde, an officer for the Teamsters Local 346 in Duluth and the union’s national pipeline director, said the pipeline would be safer than transporting oil by rail, and that it would provide good-paying jobs for union members in northern Minnesota.
LaBorde said he now lives 300 feet from an Enbridge pipeline’s right of way in South Range, Wisconsin. The pipeline has proven to be “very safe, very effective,” said LaBorde, a native of Crosby, Minnesota.
Phillip Wallace, a member of the Pipeliners Local 798, said the Sandpiper project would be “one of the safest pipelines in the world,” with strict oversight from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other agencies.
“Enbridge does it right,” he said. “They don’t award their jobs to the lowest bidder. They spend the extra money to get highly trained skilled labor” from union pipefitters.
Business owners also weighed in, including Lori Schott, owner of Avery Pipeline Services in Milaca, Minnesota, which offers inspection and project management services to the energy industry.
“I know the state of Minnesota, communities along these energy corridors, and small family businesses like mine will all benefit,” she said.
Phil Raines, vice president of public affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Minnesota and North Dakota, said in an interview that the pipeline would free up railroads for transporting other commodities, including construction materials.
Raines says there’s a lot of competition for space on the rails. Prices go up as the capacity is filled, which leads to higher construction costs.
One union leader in support of the project was sympathetic with the environmentalists’ concerns about climate change, but he said opposition to the pipeline is the wrong way to address the problem.
Kevin Pranis, organizing director of the Laborers’ District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota, said climate change is a “hugely pressing issue,” and that the union members are working on projects that will contribute to a lower carbon economy.
But he argued that opposition to the Sandpiper project does little or nothing to advance the cause of a cleaner environment.
“There is no shortage of means to move oil out of North Dakota, and that oil will move with or without the pipeline. … I hope people consider which fights to pick in terms of climate,” Pranis said.