Opposing View Points Take Turns at PUC Sand Piper Hearing

Paul Whyte

On Tuesday, January 6, in downtown Duluth the weather was frigid as a group of people formed at the Minnesota Power Plaza to rally against the proposed Sand Piper pipeline that, if approved, could stretch across the entire state of Minnesota. Despite the cold, the group was not fettered from making their statement known: the pipeline will harm the environment. For many in the group the day was just beginning. After the short rally they were to march over to the Holiday Center through the  skywalk where there was to be a Public Utilities Commission hearing which would run from 2 p.m. well into the evening.
The hearing would be overlooked by a non-biased judge as a moderator, a panel comprising of Enbridge spokespeople, and other public officials who were lined up at the end of the ball room where the hearing was to take place.  While due to deadline restraints we were unable to stay and watch the hours of testimony alternating from one viewpoint to the other in 3 to 4 minute intervals, we did get to see things unfold into the first speakers of the hearing and spoke with people from differing viewpoints in the moments leading up to the hearing.

Rally Point

At the rally we talked with a Native American man named Michael Dahl from the White Earth reservation, where the pipeline will be crossing. He felt that he was personally affected by the proposal. “As an indigenous man who still lives off of the earth, still lives with the earth, our primary thing as Ojibwe people is wild rice, that’s why we came here. To this day it’s still a primary thing,” said Dahl explaining his connection with the area. Dahl disapproves of the pipeline for several reasons, one primary reason is that the pipeline will run through the last of the lands that were left to his people. “The route of the Sandpiper runs through a very primary and historic chain of lakes that are full of rice, so that’s where personally it affects me. Also they want to run it and eclipse a north-east corner of my reserve,” said Dahl. The reservation Dahl lives on was granted through treaties from well over a century ago. “The existing pipeline corridor and the proposed pipeline corridor all run through the 1855 Treaty territories. It includes Leech Lake and White Earth reservations. It also runs through the 1854 Treaty, which runs through the Fond du Lac reservation. It also goes through the ‘63 Treaty for the Red Lake reservation.” We were left a little confused on how unwanted industry could have free reign through Native American lands. “The greatest thing people need to understand is that the treaties didn’t give us anything. We gave up our land but maintained the right to hunt and fish in those areas. Any changes with those lands were to be consulted with us.” We asked Dahl about the hearing that would be held shortly, “That’s the thing about our society today, it’s all about how the process is. The process today is do we need a pipeline? So, no we don’t, especially as indigenous people, no, we don’t need another pipeline running through our area.”

Sky Walkers

Eventually the group began to march towards the skywalk entrance. By that time we were among maybe a couple of people who appeared to still be covering the group’s activities. There was a good amount of media at the rally, where in the past there’s been sometimes no media besides the Reader at similar rallies, or the common scene of a reporter with a camera man roll in, run around for around ten minutes, and then disappear. Any indication of mainstream media had left before the march. While walking through the skywalk we talked with known local activist, Jesse Peterson, about the media involvement with environmental issues. “There’s a lot of people who have been organizing around this issue for quite awhile now, there’s been a ton of people involved. The message just doesn’t get consistently brought up in the most popular media forums so it seems like little bursts or protests here and there, but really there’s a lot of sustained activity going on,” said Peterson.
The group made their way through the skywalk, holding signs and catching the attention of store workers along the way as they marched the short trek to the Holiday Center where they, one by one, got on the escalator down to ground level and finally made it to their destination at the Great Lakes Ballroom where a crowd of people both for and against the pipeline was growing.
There was a table where people were to sign in whether they were for or against the pipeline and there was also a sign up for those with no opinion, such as media. We decided to speak with a man standing in line named Doug McCready who was obviously for the pipeline, “In my opinion we’re going to be hooked on oil for many many years to come, there’s no quick way of getting away from it. The way I see it, if the refinery decides that a pipeline is the cheapest way to get their oil, and the safest, that’s what we should do. If the refinery gets it the cheapest way they can get it, then they’ll sell it to me for the cheapest they can sell it and that helps me a lot with gasoline and heating oil. It makes sense to me because right now we’re using railroad, which costs more and is much more dangerous.”

Having a Ball

We made our way into the ballroom and then we were informed that someone from the pro-pipeliners had laid out strips of stickers over the first three rows in the ballroom, by the time we got up to the front, there were no stickers reserving seats for the pro-pipeline side. It was a little more than 30 minutes before the hearing was to begin and several other people were mentioning the incident. It was a public hearing, so reserving front row seats for a particular side would be in poor taste to say the least. We talked with one man who had an issue with the seat reservation maneuver named, Chris LaForge, the CEO of Great Northern Solar. “You know those stickers that come on a piece of paper and there’s long lines, like in the hundreds? When I got here early, because I’m speaking in favor of the environment, someone had taken up the first three rows by covering it with those stickers. Now this is a public meeting and I’m familiar with the public process, but I went up and picked the edge of one up and recognized that it was those blue pro-toxic-waste stickers and I said, ‘What’s this?’ And the woman who put them up said, ‘Well, we need to reserve some seats for the applicants.” And I said, ‘This is a public meeting and seating should be first come first serve, what are you talking about?’ And then one of the people from the PUC said, ‘You’ll have to talk to the judge about that.’ But then, the woman who had put these stickers out must have gone and talked to her boss. They looked out and she pointed at me and he said, ‘go pick those stickers up, or LaForge is going to raise hell.” We had heard of LaForge before but had not yet met him. If there was anyone pro-environment, we’re guessing LaForge is at towards the top of list in the area. LaForge seemed quite proud of his company, “we’ve only been open for 27 years, but we’ll hang in there. In other words, the solutions are not new.”
We talked a little more with LaForge since he’s made a living out of alternative energy for nearly three decades. On top of his work as CEO for a solar panel company, he is also a “Senior Research Analyst” with The Northern Futures Foundation and the Northern Protection Alliance. “These pipelines are essentially assembling the fuses and lighting them on the largest carbon bombs we’ve ever invented. Of course climate chaos is with us right now and we’re destroying the atmosphere hand over fist with this addition of more carbon. The pipelines are the fuses to letting the biggest bombs go. If we allow this development for the interest of private profit and for large corporations that don’t even reside in the country, we might be shooting ourselves in the foot,” said LaForge. We went on to discuss the success of solar power in the United States, “If we were to deploy local renewable energy like wind turbines and solar panels, the money stays in the local community. Did you know that currently the solar industry employs more people than the coal industry in the United States? Our jobs are growing rapidly and their’s are shrinking,” said LaForge.
After experiencing the environmental insights of LaForge it seemed fitting to talk with another person for the pipeline. It was somewhat surprising that we asked to talk with several people who were wearing pro-pipeline stickers and other clothing indicating their side and quite a few of them declined to comment. A person we knew mentioned that our beard, hat, jeans and Sorels might be scaring them off, but it seemed odd that people would show up to an event all about discussion yet were afraid to discuss the issue at hand despite our Northern way of dress. After all, we were just outside at a rally not that long ago in nearing sub-zero temperatures. We even by chance asked, Rick Cannata, the Mayor of Hibbing, his thoughts and he declined. Surely a public official should of had an opinion on why he would show up wearing pro-pipeline garb to an official public hearing and be able to handle a lowly alt-weekly reporter in some sort of intelligent manner. The Mayor was to speak later during the hearing, so he must have been saving the good stuff for everyone.
We finally were directed to someone who had an informed opinion. This man was not quite as burly as a lot of the pro-pipeliners, he seemed to be a logistical brainiac for the pro-pipeline side and that he was. We spoke with Kevin Pranis, an Operations Manager for Great Lakes Region Organizing Committee, a group that back Minnesota and North Dakota laborers, namely construction workers who work on everything from highways to sewer and water lines, and of course, large scale pipeline type of operations. Pranis was all about logistics, and when speaking to him, his side of the story did make some sense about why he felt the pipeline is a good idea. “Our members are going to be significantly impacted by the decision that’s made over whether to move forward with the Sand Piper pipeline…and we’re here to voice what we know about pipelines and energy needs,” said Pranis. We asked Pranis about what would happen if there is no pipeline, “The same oil is already moving by rail. I think you’d see the continued growth in more rail shipments, that means more congestion and higher risk of rail incidents. So if you look at what happened in Quebec (The Lac-Megantic rail disaster which killed 42 people, five were missing and presumed dead/burned to nothing and burned 30 buildings out of the town’s center) where 47 people died in a crude oil rail incident…the system is overburdened and the rails were never designed to carry that much crude. I don’t there’s any point in history where we’ve been carrying that much crude and it’s going right through Minnesota, through the densest metropolitan areas. On top of the safety risks, you’re having disruptions with farmers getting fertilizer, getting their crops to market, getting coal to the plant.” Pranis went on to discuss that pipelines are more tightly regulated than rail transport. “I think it’s a great process for people to come out and get more educated about the issues and hopefully it gets to the right conclusion,” said Pranis about the hearing.
As the hearing drew close to beginning we made our way up to the front and took a seat near other the media people who were there to get a little taste of the proceedings and book it back to the editing room or where going to be there for the long haul. The hearing was to be looked over by Administrative Law Judge, Eric Lipman, who has also looked over the Alberta Clipper (Line 67) meeting. Despite his role as judge, he wasn’t afraid to show a sense of humor here and there and held together both a respectable yet light demeanor. He made it clear that all information would be considered at the hearing and deemed as “evidence.” “The purpose of the hearing today and for the rest of the month is to develop facts and arguments and a hearing record for the Commission to use in its decision making. The Public Utilities Commission will of course make the final decision on the application…but they’ll do that after reading and considering all of the comments that are available. What you are submitting to record today and what is made into the record is part of this process,” said Lipman. It should be noted that there will be more public hearings on January 7 in Bemidji, January 8 in Crookston and January 9 in St. Cloud.

Hear Ye Hear Ye

The first person to go to actually speak concerning the pipeline directly was Enbridge Senior Manager, Barry Simonson, and he had put together a Powerpoint presentation for everyone in attendance and walked them through a summary of the proposal. After Simonson got done a member of the audience stood up and beckoned Judge Lipman’s attention. The man was a little upset that Simonson’s presentation was being emphasized first in the discussion and he made a mild fuss about it. Lipman asked the man to take a seat and noted that the next person to speak would be someone from the side against the pipeline and that was met with applause from around half of the crowd. Overall, the room seemed to be divided nearly equally between those for and against.
The first person to speak in the hearing was Bob Tammen. He was an older gentlemen with a modest but even toned voice. “In an age of attempts to diminish the use of fossil fuels, this is obviously a step in the wrong direction. I say that as a retiree who has spent most of his life working on union jobs getting union wages. I understand what it is to have to hit the road to get a paycheck. I can see why many of my brothers and sisters (union workers) support this pipeline but I must remind them the same companies they’re working with are usually the same companies that would bust their unions in a heartbeat if they had the power to do so.  Now, to remind my union brothers and sisters that the environmentalists that they disagree with are probably the people who will support them when they have to go vote on a right to work law in Minnesota, which has happened in other states and could happen here. I’d like to remind my friends in the environmental movement that generally labor supports a lot of their issues when they can and I’d like to see them working together again.”
The next person to speak was Nancy Norr the Director of Regional Development for Minnesota Power. “My message today is about balance, reliability and affordability,” said Norr. She stated that there are efforts to increase the use of wind, solar and biomass. While she did say that 25% of energy is renewable, she insisted, “petroleum products are core to the balance of that equation.” She touched on some of the same points that Pranis had about transporting by rail and reiterated the point that Enbridge, Minnesota Power and Superior Water, Light and Power employed hundreds in the area. In some of her final points she brought up, “Communities served by the Sand Piper pipeline will not only  benefit from the construction employment but also from significant tax revenue, local purchasing and charitable contributions.”
Since we couldn’t spend six hours at the hearing, we decided to listen to one more person, Kristie Larsen, a grandmother. “I’m a grandma and I’ve tried to convince kids and their daddies that when you wash your hands, you don’t get the flu. Because those invisible things that you can’t see can make you sick. It’s hard to teach that. It’s just like climate change, we don’t see it coming, there’s not a sign or meter that says it’s getting close and it’s almost full. We don’t know it, but when it comes, it’s going to be like the flu and it’s going to hurt us and it could kill us. I think we have to be conscious of that as a real thing. We need our elected leaders and our state agencies to understand that the time has come to turn away from fossil fuel,” said Larsen.

Is it Safe? Is it Really?
While it would be a nice notion to consider pipelines as “safe” there are certainly dozens of spills that happen every year and there have been hundreds of spills since the year 2000. Many of the pipelines pass through isolated areas so bursts are not always detected in a timely fashion and worse yet, there’s been evidence showing that companies have tried pushing spills under the carpet. Sometimes a spill isn’t detected until someone like a farmer catches it such as with  a 2013 incident where Steve Jensen from North Dakota noticed that there was oily sludge in a field which had dumped over 800,000 gallons of oil into his field. The Governor was not informed until almost two weeks later and the cost was estimated at over 11 million dollars. The Kalamazoo River oil spill of 2010 that happened in Michigan leaked over a million gallons of heavy crude oil causing people to evacuate and others were advised to not drink the water. The spill was not detected for over 18 hours. The clean up costs have cost more than $750 million and the area will not be the same for years to come. When it comes to things like pipelines it’s a game of Russian Roulette. Most of the time things will be fine, but it’s more of a question of “when” than “if” and the aftermath is ugly and costly. Most area emergency services are not prepared to deal with such a clean up and when looking at the fresh water the lines are running over, the idea of a burst is a little startling.
Most of the people for the pipeline eagerly admitted that companies have spent billions into investing into this pipeline. Wouldn’t it make sense to then paint the most environmentally friendly and picture perfect scenario if there’s billions on the line and billions to be made? Some will argue that this pipeline will produce jobs and that is true, but how sustainable are these jobs and are we talking about jobs like in the oil fields out in North Dakota? These jobs are hard work employing mostly able bodied men who are not tied down by families. These aren’t community building jobs, these are jobs of “boom and bust” opportunity and if The Bakken is any indication, there’s a lot of lonely men who are making good money but building a family is on the back burner to hard work and whatever they need to do to occupy themselves while they aren’t working. A lot of the guys are probably stand up individuals but it’s no secret that drugs, alcohol and prostitution runs rampant around such projects because what else is there to do?
Our country is addicted to oil and if you live in the Northland, you almost need a car. It is true that smarter means of transportation and energy are needed, but are we going to cut every resource down until we’re scrambling to make the change? Or would it make more sense to invest in not relying on these things that will be scarce in the future and perhaps leaning towards something else? We have the technology, but we lack the business interest because you can’t charge people for the sun and wind after awhile. The U.S. is now exporting oil and that’s good for business. For now, the consumer is happy at the pump but don’t forget things can swing back and although it’s nice to paint a happy picture of a safe and gleaming new pipeline, the grim realities that will eventually arise could leave us all wondering if it was really worth it down the road.


Paul Whyte

A South Shore native and University of Wisconsin-Superior journalism graduate. Lifelong musician, and former open mic host. Passionate about the music scene and politics.

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