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DNR urges study of alternative routes for Sandpiper pipeline

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has taken a stricter stance on the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline, citing environmental concerns.

Calgary-based Enbridge Energy plans to build a $2.6 billion, 616-mile pipeline to transport crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin, and beyond. Its preferred route passes through a large swath of northern Minnesota, curving just south of Park Rapids and including part of Cass County near Pine River.

In an Aug. 21 letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which has permitting control over the Sandpiper pipeline, the DNR encouraged the study of alternative systems to Enbridge's preferred path across northern Minnesota.

The DNR has previously suggested alternative routes between the line terminals at Clearbrook, Minnestoa, and Superior, including running the line through the existing right-of-way near Bemidji. The new stance advocates for the study of new pipeline systems that do not necessarily go through one or both of the terminals, which may mean the pipeline avoids most of northern Minnesota altogether.

DNR environmental official Jamie Schrenzel wrote in the letter that Enbridge's preferred route would run through "a region of the state that contains a concentration of important lakes for fisheries, trout streams, sensitive aquifers, public conservation lands, and mineral and forestry resources.

"DNR encourages the PUC to strongly consider analysis of one or more system alternatives having fewer environmental or natural resource impacts than the Preferred Route," the letter read.

Schrenzel's letter noted the possibility of more pipelines being installed along the same corridor as Sandpiper, including "Line 3," an additional new pipeline proposed by Enbridge. It also raised concerns about "greenfield" construction, meaning pipeline segments running on land that hadn't been previously developed.

Enbridge spokeswoman Christine Davis responded last week, saying Enbridge's preferred route was still the best.

"It travels along existing utility right-of-way, it's shorter than the other proposed system alternatives and it minimizes impact to the environment and to people," she said in an interview.

Enbridge also has argued that longer alternative routes would mean more greenhouse gas emissions as a result of more energy expended to pump oil down the line.

"Each of the eight system alternatives is less efficient, more costly and provides no significant environmental benefit as compared to the (preferred route)," Enbridge wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the PUC.

Additional public hearings on the Sandpiper route are slated for this year, with an expected decision in 2015.