State regulators advance Enbridge pipeline, sparking protests and legal threats

State regulators on Monday refused to reconsider their decision approving the controversial Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline, setting off a protest at the state Capitol complex and threats of legal action.

Last month, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission formally approved a request by Enbridge Energy to replace a major oil pipeline capable of moving 800,000 barrels a day. The pipeline covers more than a thousand miles from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. 

Monday, inside a hearing room at the Senate Office Building heavily guarded by Capitol Police officers, the commission voted unanimously not to reconsider that decision. 

"It wasn't an easy decision, I think we all know that. But it was the right decision based on record and the applicable law," said commissioner Dan Lipschultz.

Immediately after the decision, four protesters began shouting "Line 3 is an immediate climate disaster, so we will stop Line 3." They left the meeting without incident. Dozens of protesters then walked to Gov.-elect Tim Walz's office to oppose the commission's decision, where more police awaited.

Enbridge now must secure permits to start construction on the pipeline, which company officials expect to complete by the end of 2019.

Enbridge says the new pipeline is needed because the old one, built in the 1960s, is increasingly in danger of corroding or cracking. The replacement project calls for more than 300 miles of new line that would take a different path through northern Minnesota.

"We're thankful with the outcome," said Paul Eberth, Enbridge's director of Line 3 replacement. "Mostly, we were thankful that the commission was able to conduct their business today orderly with little disruption. We're happy to move on to the next step in the regulatory process."

It may not be that simple. Opponents vowed Monday to ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reverse the decision. During the commission's meeting, one person wrote a handmade sign that read, "See you in court."

Opponents fear replacing the aging pipeline would threaten the environment and natural resources. They are concerned about oil spills near the Mississippi River headwaters, where Native Americans harvest wild rice.

Winona LaDuke of the environmental group Honor the Earth said the Public Service Commission was "not working for the people of Minnesota."

"We will move into the legal arena if that is all that we are left," she said. "We will move in with a full-court press into the legal arena."

Besides rejecting the motions to reconsider its earlier approval of the project, the Public Utilities Commission also heard about Enbridge's plan to insure the new pipeline. 

Enbridge officials said the company would pay to clean up any oil spills and would have insurance on the pipeline once it goes into service. Eberth also noted an oil spill trust fund stands at more than $6 billion.

"Enbridge covers the cost of an incident," he said. "And insurance is there to provide protection against our balance sheet, for us to recover the costs."

Meanwhile, inside the Walz transition office in the Capitol, protesters were appealing to the governor-elect's staff. The protesters did not meet with Walz himself.

"The governor-elect believes the permitting process must increase engagement with tribes and ensure the project meets or exceeds all environmental standards," said Kayla Castaneda, a Walz spokeswoman. "If it does, then the project should go forward. If it does not, then it should not."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.