ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Republican lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday that would allow a Canadian energy company to bypass regulatory hurdles and build a $7.5 billion replacement for an existing oil pipeline in Minnesota.
It was part of a larger jobs and energy bill that also passed largely along party lines by a vote of 76-55. Debate over the Enbridge Energy pipeline amendment lasted several hours as Democrats tried to block the provision, citing issues with American Indian treaty conflicts, the environment and the precedent set by side-stepping the state's regulator, the Public Utilities Commission.
The commission is considering a number of alternative routes, but the amendment allows Enbridge to use its preferred route.
The pipeline currently runs 1,097 miles from Alberta, Canada, clips the northeast corner of North Dakota and traverses northern Minnesota on its way to Superior, Wisconsin. The preferred replacement line would closely follow the route of the old pipeline, with a few changes in Minnesota that attempt to skirt American Indian land. But the tribes still oppose the new route because they say it would cross treaty land even if not the reservation.
Opponents said the northern Minnesota portion of the route is full of trees and water that is susceptible to major damage from an oil spill. The area is also home to waters where Ojibwe bands harvest wild rice and a number of American Indian protesters were at the Capitol earlier in the day to rally against the bill.
Comparisons are already being drawn with the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines, which prompted strong protests including a camp of demonstrators in North Dakota for months.
Protesters rallying at the Capitol said they are willing to bring the same type of opposition that occurred at the Dakota Access line to Minnesota.
Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo, of Farmington, authored both the bill and the pipeline amendment. He said the opposition to the pipeline replacement — which was originally built in Minnesota in the 1960s — is the work of "environmental extremists."
The replacement for the aging pipeline, which has runs at a lower capacity because of safety issues, would bring millions of dollars of property tax revenue to areas that need it most, Garofalo said.
"We put Minnesota back on track instead of diverting billions of dollars of private sector investment to outside our state," he said.
Race was again a hot topic on the House floor as a contingency of Native lawmakers said the amendment marginalized American Indians by ignoring their concerns and priorities.
One of those lawmakers, Democratic Rep. Peggy Flanagan, said when people say that there will always be controversy no matter where the pipeline is put, they really mean to say that Native people are in the way.
"That is something that Indian people have heard for a long time," she said.
There are also provisions in the bill that could remove regulatory oversight for future pipelines and gives the Legislature more control over picking the Public Utilities Commission members.
The provision still has a tough route ahead of it as the bill needs to go through two rounds of negotiations, first with the Republican Senate, and then with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, if the Legislature comes to an agreement.
Dayton said in a statement that the commission exists to protect Minnesota residents and give them an opportunity to voice their opinion on state projects.
"The PUC plays an essential role in Minnesota, safeguarding the interests of Minnesota utility customers now and in the future," he said. "I strongly oppose any attempts to weaken, bypass, or influence the PUC."
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of Nisswa, has repeatedly said that he does not want to send bills to the governor that will be vetoed.
Democrats also raised concerns about provisions of the bill that they say would scrap a solar power incentive, relaxing regulations on the telecommunications industry and decrease opportunities for minorities in the state, especially women.