Minnesota Senate has a Line 3 temper tantrum

Scott Russell

Steve Kelley

The Minnesota State Senate booted Steve Kelley as the Commissioner of Commerce because his department filed a legal challenge to the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. In so doing, the Senate abused its role to “advise and consent” on top state administration appointments.

Kelley didn’t violate any ethics rules. He didn’t break the law. The Senate didn’t argue he wasn’t qualified. The Senate failed to make an argument against his appointment other than a policy disagreement.

If a policy dispute was sufficient to reject a commissioner’s appointment, the Senate could justify rejecting any and all appointees.

Also worrisome, the Senate seems to be sending a thinly veiled threat to Laura Bishop, Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The MPCA has yet to act on Enbridge’s request for Line 3’s water crossing permit. The Senate has yet to confirm Bishop’s appointment, so there’s an implied threat that she could be next if she blocks the permit.

Walz appointed Kelley to lead the Department of Commerce in 2019. The Senate rejected Kelley’s appointment on a 33-31 vote on Sept. 11, the Star Tribune reported. It cited Kelley’s decision to file a legal challenge to Line 3 as a major reason for his ouster. Gerald Tyler, chairman of Up North Jobs Inc., made a similar argument in a recent Op/Ed.

Minnesota Statute 15.066 outlines the confirmation process and Senate Research published an explainer.

Bottom line: There are no guidelines. It’s political whim.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) first approved two Line 3 key permits in 2018. It did so over the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s objection.

Under the Dayton administration, the Department of Commerce sued in the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reject Line 3’s Certificate of Need. It argued that Enbridge failed to meet a basic legal threshold for the permit: It didn’t prove that future oil demand was sufficient to justify a new pipeline.

The PUC’s decision was ill considered, a sign of the corporate capture of our regulatory agencies.

The Walz administration has twice renewed the lawsuit. It’s been on sound legal footing. The oil markets have crashed during the cornavirus pandemic, and oil demand dropped. The Senate’s rejection of Kelley’s appointment is one more example of corporate power being flexed against the public interest.

The political pressure now shifts to the MPCA. The MPCA’s mission is “to protect and improve the environment and human health.”

The proposed Line 3 would cross more than 200 streams and other water bodies. It would trench through 78 miles of wetlands. (For comparison, the drive from St. Cloud to St. Paul is 77 miles.) Northern Minnesota has some of the state’s cleanest waters.

It should be no-brainer to reject the environmental risks for a pipeline we don’t need. However, the MPCA initially recommended approving the permit. It chose to take a very narrow view of the project. It didn’t consider the impacts of future oil spills or the pipeline’s associated climate damage.

Public pressure convinced the MPCA to hold a contested case hearing. A decision is expected by November.

If you see Steve Kelley, tell him thanks. Call Walz and Bishop and tell them the MPCA should follow Commerce’s analysis and reject Line 3, a dangerous project our state does not need.

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