The State Department ‘Secretly Approved’ Two Pipeline Projects, Lawsuit Alleges

CREDIT: shutterstock

Tribal and environmental groups are suing the State Department for allegedly “secretly” approving two pipeline projects last year, approvals that the groups say violated national environmental regulations.

The lawsuit was filed last year by Minnesota’s White Earth Nation tribe along with environmental groups including the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity, but the groups filed a motion for summary judgment in Minnesota federal court this week. In it, the groups claim that in 2014, the State Department “short-circuited” the approval process for the expansion of Enbridge’s Line 67 — also known as the Alberta Clipper. They also claim the department approved the construction of a new pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin, without necessary public input.

According to the summary judgment motion, the State Department sought to build the new pipeline by using “an existing permit for another pipeline known as Line 3.” Doug Hayes, staff attorney for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress that Enbridge, while waiting on the State Department to conduct an environmental analysis on the Alberta Clipper expansion, found a way to replace parts of Line 3 to allow it transport tar sands at a higher volume while the analysis was taking place.

Oil from the Alberta Clipper (left) would be diverted through the new Line 3 border crossing (right), the lawsuit alleges.

Oil from the Alberta Clipper (left) would be diverted through the new Line 3 border crossing (right), the lawsuit alleges.

CREDIT: U.S. District Court Minnesota

“In effect, what the State Department has done is allow the Alberta Clipper expansion to go forward in the interim, but they’ve also allowed this new higher capacity line at the border under the guise of line 3 maintenance,” he said, referring to the stronger pipe that he says Enbridge replaced Line 3 with at the Canadian border. “Clearly it’s not just maintenance of a pipeline — it’s something different.”

In approving those projects, the State Department violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the groups allege.

“The State Department’s hasty and uninformed decision-making increases the risk of harm to plaintiffs’ members’ health, as well as to their property, recreational, aesthetic, cultural, spiritual, and economic interests,” the lawsuit reads. “Because of its failure to conduct any NEPA or NHPA analysis before approving these projects, the State Department lacks the information it needs to effectively mitigate the projects’ environmental risks.”

This is worrying for the Sierra Club — which is currently running a campaign and petition against what it calls Enbridge’s “illegal scheme” — and other environmental groups in part because it means more high-carbon tar sands oil will be shipped across the border. Enbridge is looking to double the capacity of the Alberta Clipper pipeline from 450,000 barrels per day to nearly 800,000 bpd — almost as much, Sierra Club points out, as Keystone XL would carry.

The Sierra Club isn’t supportive of the expansion in the first place, but this alleged attempt to subvert the State Department’s process makes the issue more concerning for the group.

“We’re asking for state department to stick to their word, stick to the process, and analyze the impacts of this expansion before they allow it to go forward,” Hayes said.

The State Department, for its part, denies the allegations.

“The State Department made no such decision to approve construction and operation of a new border-crossing crude oil pipeline or a significant increase in the capacity of an existing cross-border crude oil pipeline,” the department states in its answer to the lawsuit.

The department also confirmed that it’s putting together a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and “conducting associated public outreach consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act” as part of its review of Enbridge’s Line 67 application.

Hayes said he thought the allegations against Enbridge were an example of the oil industry’s secretive nature. He noted that this isn’t the first time that a government agency or pipeline company has been accused of fast-tracking pipelines or avoiding full environmental review. In 2013, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit involving Enbridge’s now-complete Flanagan South pipeline, which accused the Army Corps of Engineers of treating each of Flanagan’s water crossings as a separate project — instead of looking at the whole, 589-mile pipeline — so that the pipeline could qualify for expedited approval.

“The oil industry and pipeline companies are going to greater and greater lengths to cut the public out of the process,” he said. “I think this just is the latest scheme they’ve come up with and it’s entirely designed to avoid the public environmental review that’s required under NEPA.”