The Legislative Auditor released a report Monday critical of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, citing a poor track record of engaging the public in its work regulating power plants, pipelines, and other utilities.
Opponents of the Enbridge Line 3 and other controversial projects seized on the findings, calling it vindication after years of criticizing the PUC’s lack of transparency.
The report from the Office of Legislative Auditor, or OLA, issues a set of recommendations for how the PUC can guide citizens through its complicated multi-agency systems for public feedback. The OLA’s suggestions include streamlining the Commission’s website and providing clearly written resources to help people understand their right to intervene in a pending case. The authors note that energy utilities have the resources to hire lawyers, and members of the public trying to oppose a planned pipeline frequently face an uphill battle to have their voices heard.
The PUC’s communication with tribal governments has in the past been inadequate, the report’s authors assert. The PUC is required to notify local governments and state agencies if one of its projects falls under their jurisdiction; the audit found that tribal governments were not included on the list of authorities alerted by the PUC.
The OLA’s report highlights several of these issues in a case study of the approval process for the Line 3 pipeline, a controversial relocation of an existing oil pipeline operated by the Canadian company Enbridge. Environmental and tribal groups fought the proposal, which is currently waiting for permits from state environmental agencies.
The PUC gave Enbridge too much influence at early public meetings, allowing them to choose the venues and bring large delegations that intimidated those speaking in opposition to the project, according to the audit. The agency also didn’t formally consult tribal authorities until two years into the process, and during agenda meetings used a confusing ticketing procedure and seemingly arbitrary rules for entry that prevented groups like the Sierra Club and the Youth Climate Intervenors from participating, according to the audit.
The authors of the report mention that the PUC has improved its practices since the start of their evaluation, instituting a formal tribal consultation policy in 2019 and appointing an advisor as a tribal liaison. But the OLA urges the PUC to do more to involve Native communities and other members of the public in its decision-making process.
“[PUC leadership] has committed to providing more oversight of public participation in general, and particularly for cases that have a significant level of public interest,” says a PUC statement included in the report. “Improved public engagement is a priority for the new leadership team, and this report provides some important recommendations to incorporate into our ongoing efforts.”