In big win for Enbridge, most of its old Line 3 pipeline will remain in the ground

Removing the old pipeline would mitigate environmental risks and create jobs, but most landowners chose a payout to leave it in

By: - November 11, 2021 7:10 am

Crews worked on Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline near Hill City on Jan. 26, 2021. Fifty-foot paths through forest and wetland were cleared to make way for the pipeline. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

There is a spot in Cloquet, Minnesota, where the old Line 3 pipeline almost meets the new one. This happens just a few yards from Highway 210, and a stone’s throw from Colleen Bernu’s driveway.

For Bernu and others, the new, larger Line 3 pipeline, which began moving oil on October 1, isn’t the most pressing issue now. They worry about the old pipeline, which for more than 50 years transported oil 1,097 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.

That line, under policies adopted by Canadian owner and operator Enbridge, will mostly remain in the ground, decommissioned, emptied of oil but with the potential for environmental damage in the future.

Keeping most of the pipeline in the ground is a win for Enbridge, but environmentalists, activists and some concerned landowners like Bernu say the company has put them at risk for future contamination and only offered them the illusion of choice about the soon-to-be dormant pipeline.

“As pipelines wear out, they should be taken out,” Bernu said, adding that if removal is not possible, they should at least be cleaned, disconnected and plugged with cement, to mitigate future impacts on soil or water. “That would create an entire new economic opportunity for people, and it would be a win for the environment as well as a win for families.”

Private landowners and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa own different parts of the land where the pipeline runs past Bernu’s home, which is on the reservation. Bernu, a Fond du Lac descendant, said she didn’t get a say in whether it should be removed because it isn’t on her property. She still doesn’t know what its fate will be.

Pipeline removal could potentially unite those who typically oppose each other on pipeline issues. Removing it would provide jobs for workers in parts of the state that need them, and it would also protect the environment, including surrounding water sources, in the long term.

Colleen Bernu stands in front of her greenhouse on her property on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minn. Several pipelines run near her property including the new and old Line 3 pipelines. Photo by Colleen Connolly/Minnesota Reformer.

A Cheaper Way

Removing pipe is much more expensive than leaving it buried. Enbridge estimates the cost of removing the pipeline in Minnesota would be approximately $1.28 billion — or $855 per foot, according to the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the state for the Line 3 replacement project.

To pay property owners to keep it in the ground would cost about $10 per foot, or $85 million, plus an additional $100,000 a year in Minnesota for monitoring.

As the country slowly moves toward a greener economy, the question of what to do with old oil pipelines is likely to get louder. In a compromise to complete removal, the Indigenous-led environmental justice organization Honor the Earth urged Enbridge to at least allow landowners to decide whether the pipeline should be left or removed from their property.

The subsequent Landowner Choice Program, created in 2018, has not resulted in many agreements for removal, however. Paul Blackburn, an attorney with Honor the Earth, said one reason is that there was no united opposition among landowners, which gave Enbridge greater authority and influence.

We don’t understand all of the potential problems that could occur now or in the future with decommissioning these pipelines.

– Patricia Maurice, geochemist and professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.

“The Landowner Choice Program could have resulted in much more pipe being removed from the ground if anyone had bothered to organize landowners on this issue, but no one did,” Blackburn said in an email. “It’s not Honor the Earth’s mission to look after the financial interests of non-Indigenous people. In other states, pipeline fights have engaged many landowners, but the effort in Minnesota failed. As a result, Enbridge acted in its normal self-serving way and implemented the Landowner Choice Program without opposition.”

It’s not uncommon for people who live along the pipeline not to know what their neighbors have decided about removal. Privacy concerns are high, and some say they don’t want to cause trouble with Enbridge by speaking publicly against them.

As of the end of October, Enbridge had signed 801 agreements with landowners to keep old pipeline in the ground, according to Will Seuffert, executive secretary of Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission, which approved the Landowner Choice Program as a condition of granting the permit to build the new Line 3.

Only 40 landowners so far have requested removal; more than 150 landowners remain undecided. In 2018, Fond du Lac and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reached separate agreements with Enbridge to remove the pipeline from their tribal lands once the new one was built.

Sizable Payouts

Though the cost to Enbridge of keeping the pipeline in the ground is far lower, some landowners received significant payouts. One property owner near Grand Rapids, where a spill in Line 3 dumped 1.7 million gallons of crude oil into the Prairie River 30 years ago, said he was paid around $43,000 from Enbridge to keep the pipe in the ground.

The owner, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he worries that leaving the pipe could lead to some water displacement, but he is more concerned about the disruptive — and destructive — process of taking out the pipe, which runs through swampy land on his property. “I just want them touching it as little as possible,” he said.

The process of removing a pipeline can be just as invasive as putting one in, but in the long term, it’s likely to be less damaging for the environment to take it out, according to Patricia Maurice, a geochemist and professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

“We don’t understand all of the potential problems that could occur now or in the future with decommissioning these pipelines,” Maurice said.

Maurice said the risks of leaving decommissioned oil pipelines in the ground indefinitely range from corrosion and soil contamination to water displacement. It’s also possible there could be radioactivity from accumulated chemicals like uranium that are often associated with petroleum, but Maurice said this has not been studied enough yet to know for certain.

The impact of tar sands oil pipelines, in particular, remains unknown. Tar sands oil is more viscous than crude oil and so has a greater chance of leaving a coating inside the pipeline, Maurice said. Decommissioning these pipelines has been less studied than crude oil pipelines.

Pipe Cleaners

In a plan submitted to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, Enbridge proposed a decommissioning process that will begin with purging the oil from the pipeline using cleaning devices known as “pigs” propelled by nitrogen gas.

They will then engage in a “multi-step cleaning process” involving cleaning solutions that will have to be disposed of to prevent contamination. Then, the pipeline will be broken into sections to prevent water from moving through it.

In some cases, it may be back-filled with cement. Enbridge will continue to monitor and maintain the pipeline after it is decommissioned, said Juli Kellner, a spokeswoman for Enbridge, but she declined to say how often — and for how long — they will do so.

Maurice, who lives near Enbridge’s Line 6B in Michigan and has personal experience dealing with the company, is skeptical.

“One of the things I learned from being next to a pipeline and dealing with Enbridge is that what they say they’re doing and what their plans are does not always match with what they actually do when they’re out in the field,” Maurice said.

Landowners in rural communities along the pipeline route are used to dealing with Enbridge and are generally supportive of the company for providing jobs and economic opportunity. But it also leaves Enbridge with a large influence that some feel powerless to overcome.

Several pipelines run beneath the ground through the Fond du Lac reservation near Cloquet, Minn including both the new and old Line 3. Photo by Colleen Connolly.

In 2020, Enbridge employed 380 people in Minnesota, paying nearly $24 million in salaries and investing $1.4 million in community-building initiatives.

Removing the pipeline would provide even more jobs to the region, but that argument has failed to rally support from union leaders, as happened during construction of the new Line 3.

Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for the Laborers’ International Union of North America in Minnesota and North Dakota, which represents construction laborers, said the union doesn’t support job creation simply for the sake of jobs. The work must also benefit the public, and they don’t see pipeline removal as necessary.

Asked about the environmental risks, he said it’s a “pretty minor concern” compared to the greater risks associated with active pipelines.

“Our view of this was that this should be a question for landowners,” Pranis said. “We didn’t really have a position on it, but it’s sort of like ‘bridges to nowhere’ projects, like digging holes and filling them again to create jobs. It doesn’t serve a public purpose.”

“I think the thing that gets lost in the conversation about Line 3 and all pipeline projects is this deeper conversation about economic diversity and about people having the freedom to choose jobs that can give them a solid wage,” Bernu said.

The freedom to choose is what the Landowner Choice Program promises — and for some, it has worked out that way. Others, however, argue that Enbridge did not provide them with their full range of options.

A Complaint against Enbridge

In May, attorney Evan Carlson, representing several landowners, filed a complaint with the PUC alleging Enbridge didn’t provide property owners with enough information to make an informed decision about the future of the decommissioned pipeline on their land.

Carlson claimed that Enbridge didn’t properly inform his clients (who were not identified) that they were entitled to hire a third-party engineer at Enbridge’s expense to assess their land, to negotiate a price to leave the pipeline in the ground, and to engage in mediation at Enbridge’s expense if there is a dispute.

“Enbridge has effectively and intentionally hidden the existence of the third-party engineer for the purpose of keeping landowners uninformed,” Carlson wrote in the motion.

Enbridge disputed the complaint, saying they had been “communicating for months with landowners, making them aware of their options,” according to Kellner.

For landowners who have already agreed to keep the pipeline in the ground, however, it will most likely stay there indefinitely. The bigger question now is what will happen with the new Line 3 when it, too, becomes obsolete.

The next time we have another pipeline that needs to be dealt with, we’re going to go right back through this again.

– Colleen Bernu

Another condition of the PUC’s approval of permits to construct the Line 3 replacement pipeline was that Enbridge set up a trust fund to pay for decommissioning and removal of the pipeline in the future. It would be one of the first such trust funds to exist in the country.

For years, the Canadian government has required pipeline companies to contribute to decommissioning trust funds, but there is no federal requirement in the United States. So far, no timeline has been set for creating the fund.

Where Bernu lives in Cloquet, the old and new Line 3 run in corridors right next to each other, along with other pipelines. No matter what happens to the decommissioned one, she will still have pipelines near her driveway and will still worry about how that will impact the environment and her property. But she was disappointed to see how the Landowner Choice Program has rolled out.

“What was so important to me was setting a precedent in how we deal with pipelines when they age to a point where they could no longer be usable,” she said. “In my personal opinion, that precedent hasn’t been set yet. How we dealt with Line 3 was so spongy that I think the next time we have another pipeline that needs to be dealt with, we’re going to go right back through this again.”

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Colleen Connolly
Colleen Connolly

Colleen Connolly is a Minneapolis-based bilingual journalist writing about immigration, education, Latin America and other issues. Connolly has also worked as a digital news editor at the Chicago Tribune and NBC Chicago.