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Commission places Sandpiper project on hold after court decision

Minnesota regulators took the "wait and see approach" Thursday, Oct. 1, putting a controversial oil pipeline on hold with potential courtroom battles looming.

Minnesota regulators took the "wait and see approach" Thursday, Oct. 1, putting a controversial oil pipeline on hold with potential courtroom battles looming.

The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted to suspend its approval of a key permit needed for the Sandpiper pipeline after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the commission erred in not conducting an environmental impact statement before granting a certificate of need.

Now, the commission and objecting parties are in a holding pattern to see if the proposers of the project, Enbridge Energy and its subsidiary North Dakota Pipeline Co. (NDPC), will file an appeal of the court ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court by the Oct. 14 deadline.

The Sandpiper is a proposed 600-plus mile light crude oil pipeline that would run across North Dakota and northern Minnesota from the Bakken oilfields to an existing Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wis., including through the northern lakes area. Enbridge originally forecast construction on the $2.6 billion project to begin in 2016, although prolonged proceedings may push back that timetable a year or more.

Commissioners were concerned about the permitting process reaching a standstill, so the PUC asked the NDPC and opposing parties White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Honor the Earth, Carlton County Land Stewards and Friends of the Headwaters to file comment on how each want the commission to continue with the Sandpiper proceedings by Oct. 30, after the court appeal deadline passes.

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"I don't want stalling to become the order of the day," commissioner Betsy Wergen said. "I firmly believe we have timelines and statutes that have already been exceeded ... I don't want to see us become the federal government and just have things laying here. I want to be assured there will be movement forward rather than a three-year stay waiting for a Supreme Court decision."

The decision to stay the certificate of need also means North Dakota Pipeline's motion to consider the certificate of need and route permitting proceedings at the same time will not come to pass. The commission has presided over only five oil pipeline projects in the last 15 years, but it traditionally has granted - or denied - both permits for pipeline projects at the same time, but in the Sandpiper case has considered them separately.

Timeline

There have been many twists and turns in the Minnesota Public Utility Commission's Sandpiper proceedings in the past two years. Here is a timeline outlining the regulatory journey the project has gone through:

• Sept. 11, 2013: The PUC issues an order approving a notice plan filed by Enbridge subsidiary North Dakota Pipeline Company. This is the precursor of the permitting process that begins at timeline to complete applications for a certificate of need and route permit.

• Feb. 11, 2014: Sandpiper's certificate of need and route permit applications are deemed complete.

• Aug. 7, 2014: The commission approves more than 50 alternate routes after the public submits different routes, some of which don't meet Enbridge's requirement of sending the pipeline through its Clearbrook, Minn., terminal or ending at its Superior, Wis., facility. North Dakota Pipeline Company attorney Christina Brusven likened the public-submitted routes as "literally lines drawn on a map."

• Oct. 7, 2014: The PUC separates the certificate of need and route permitting dockets, going against historical procedure.

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• Jan. 28, 2015: Paul Eberth, Sandpiper's project director, says the pipeline would likely not be built unless it was built along Enbridge's original route during evidentiary hearings. Minnesota administrative law judge Eric Lipman goes on to preside over public forums and hearings to provide a recommendation to the PUC regarding Sandpiper's certificate of need.

• Apr. 13, 2015: Lipman recommends the commission grants the certificate of need.

• June 5, 2015: The PUC adopts many of Lipman's findings, and grants Enbridge and the NDPC a certificate of need for the Sandpiper project.

• Aug. 3, 2015: Guidelines for approving a route for Sandpiper are released by the PUC. The order includes a cumulative environmental impact study for the Sandpiper and Enbridge Line 3 projects. Line 3 is proposed to follow the same corridor as Sandpiper in much of its Minnesota segment.

• Sept. 15, 2015: The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturns the PUC approval of Sandpiper's certificate of need due to a lack of an environmental impact statement completed by state officials.

• Oct. 1, 2015: As a result of the court finding weeks earlier, the PUC stays the certificate of need pending possible further litigation.

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