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Review Sandpiper pipeline corridor

Enbridge's proposal to route its Sandpiper pipeline through the Mississippi headwaters region of Minnesota has sparked intense opposition from environmental and American Indian groups. It also has generated a proposed alternative that has merit.

The Sandpiper pipeline is designed to carry oil from the Bakken Formation near Tioga in northwestern North Dakota to a terminal owned by an Enbridge affiliate in Superior, Wis. Across much of North Dakota and part of Minnesota, the pipeline generally will follow Enbridge's existing pipeline corridor. But from Clearbrook in Minnesota's Clearwater County, the 30-inch pipeline would deviate from the corridor on a proposed route that would extend southeast, near Park Rapids, then east to Superior. That's where problems lie.

That would mean disrupting important farmland, wildlife habitat and watersheds, including Mississippi headwaters drainage. There is another possibility, however, and it deserves a serious look by regulators. Wherever possible, pipelines should follow existing utility rights of way. One alternative could follow the Interstate 29 corridor from Grand Forks to Fargo, then southeast along the Interstate 94 corridor to the Twin Cities. That alternative should be studied.

Enbridge has not adequately explained why it cannot use its existing corridor beyond Clearbrook. Regulators, including the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, should demand that Enbridge make a clear and convincing case for deviating from its existing right of way. Sound long-term planning to meet growing utility and energy needs should designate strategic rights of way for projects like Sandpiper.

To be clear, pipelines like Sandpiper are needed to transport oil and gas from the Bakken. pipelines, though not perfect, are safer than trucks and trains. But they can result in very damaging and very large spills. Sandpiper's initial capacity would carry 225,000 barrels per day to Clearbrook and 375,000 barrels per day to Superior.

Concerns about environmental damage to the sensitive headwaters region are legitimate. Enbridge owns and operates the pipeline that ruptured in 2010 in Michigan, a spill causing 843,000 gallons of oil to pollute the Kalamazoo River. That mess — contained about 80 river miles from Lake Michigan — traveled 35 miles downstream and still is being cleaned up. Imagine what a major pipeline spill would mean to the streams that feed the upper Mississippi.

That's not a risk to take lightly. Regulators must give a hard look at viable alternatives. Enbridge hasn't made a case to deviate from its existing corridor.