Enbridge presents dark prognosis for aging pipeline in northern Minnesota

The Enbridge oil pipeline transfer station in Clearbrook. Everyone agrees the Line 3 pipeline is doomed, but the company is proposing to build one through wild rice fields.

The Enbridge oil pipeline transfer station in Clearbrook. Everyone agrees the Line 3 pipeline is doomed, but the company is proposing to build one through wild rice fields. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Unlike the famously controversial Dakota Access, Keystone XL, and Sandpiper pipelines, Enbridge’s Line 3 in northern Minnesota has been pushing crude since the 1960s.

These days, it's dangerously out of shape, according to a expert testimony Enbridge provided this week to the state Public Utilities Commission. The corrosion and cracking is so extensive, they say, that further use could cause calamitous leaks. Yet shutting down entirely would trigger fuel shortages.

The company says that half of the joints are corroding, and that it has five times more stress cracks per mile than other pipelines in the same corridor. It was originally made with defective steel, and the welding was done with outdated technology.

The laborer's union agrees with Enbridge's assessment. And its solution: build an entirely new Line 3 and vacate the old one.

"You look at the pipe and you can see the problems with the materials they used and how it was installed. We haven’t built pipelines that way in my lifetime," says union member Tony Lossing. "For now, we’re keeping it safe, but it’s a game of 'whack-a-mole,' and eventually we may not be able to keep up."

The union insists its stance is inspired more by concern for the environment than financial gain for its members. Laborers could personally make more money if Enbridge allowed continual decay, because that would produce more Band-Aid maintenence gigs. But the current diagnosis is so dire, the union says, that it must be replaced as soon as possible.

They blame environmentalist groups for the delay by -- ironically -- obstructing an environmental review of the project.

Environmentalist groups agree that Line 3 is starting to look pretty janky and probably shouldn't be trusted to move more oil. Some of them, like Honor the Earth, are upset at the notion that Enbridge will simply abandon the old line. Others recognize that the U.S. is still fossil fuel dependent and support Enbridge's efforts. They just don't like the path the pipeline would take.

Friends of the Headwaters, a ragtag group of conservationists, doesn't want the line to pass through northern Minnesota's wild rice lakes. They've proposed a longer pipeline (which means more work for the laborers) that would carve further south through agricultural lands.

Their second choice would be for Enbridge to dig up the current line and lay new pipe in its tracks.
Richard Smith, Friends of the Headwaters president, says he understands where the laborers union is coming from, but believes it's really unfair for them to say that environmentalists have tried to delay an environmental study.

State law requires pipeline companies to submit a simple environmental review of proposed projects. Three years ago, when Enbridge first brought up the Line 3 replacement, they intended to study their chosen site only. Friends of the Headwaters insisted that they also study feasible routes outside the Mississippi River Headwaters area.

A lengthy lawsuit ensued, and in December of 2015 the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with environmentalists. Enbridge was ordered to complete a more comprehensive assessment, including alternate routes.

That assessment is about a year out from completion. Smith says it's important to have secured the study before any pipe went into the ground. Just look at the mess with the Dakota Access -- construction began, protests erupted, the Obama Administration finally ordered an environmental study, and then the Trump Administration quashed it.

"We're literally right in the middle of this process. We can't make it happen any faster," Smith says. "The laborers, the parties that are interested in replacing Line 3, are literally waiting for this EIS to come out."