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Crews install a portion of the Alberta Clipper pipeline Wednesday near Carlton. Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com

Enbridge begins pipeline work

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TWIN LAKES TOWNSHIP -- The largest active construction project in Minnesota is officially under way after a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday for the Enbridge Energy pipeline that will carry Canadian crude oil across the state to Superior.

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With a landscape of neatly stacked pipes as a backdrop, Enbridge officials joined local, state and tribal political and business leaders in Carlton County on Wednesday in a gravel pit used as a giant pipe marshalling yard.

"This is a pipeliner's dream ... beautiful when you can see rows and rows of pipe,'' said Al Monaco, Enbridge executive vice president of major projects.

Thousands of giant pipes have been stockpiled in recent months in anticipation of Enbridge securing federal and state permits for the massive project. The most critical of those permits came late last month when the U.S. State Department approved the project.

Crews already are digging trenches and laying pieces. The company hopes to have the job done and ready to move oil south by the end of 2010.

This is a fantastic "private-sector stimulus program,'' said U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, praising its impact on jobs, small-town businesses and the state's economy.

The project's numbers are nearly all big:

  • The $1.2 billion U.S. segment of the pipeline is part of an $8 billion, 1,000-mile system expansion that will bring oil from Alberta into the U.S., across Minnesota and into Wisconsin. From Superior, the oil could either be refined at the Murphy Oil facility or piped another 450 miles to Illinois.
  • More than 3,000 construction workers, many of them skilled union tradesmen, will be on the job over the next year, including welders making more than 40,000 pipe connections. Many local firms also are subcontractors on the job. The new Minnesota Twins stadium, by comparison, had about the same number of workers but is about one-third the cost of the pipeline.
  • Two pipelines are being laid side-by-side, one 36 inches in diameter and another 20 inches across. Crude oil will flow south while a refined product used to dilute thick tar-sand crude will flow north.
  • About 326 miles of pipe will be laid in Minnesota. Each piece is 72 feet long. That's 21,516 pipes for each of the two lines, or more than 43,000 pieces of pipe.
  • More than 1,000 excavators, bulldozers and other pieces of heavy equipment will be laying the pipe.

* The pipeline will carry about 450,000 barrels of oil, or 19 million gallons, into the U.S. every day. That's in addition to the 67.2 million gallons the company already moves through existing pipelines along the same route.

* Enbridge, based in Canada with a U.S. subsidiary based in Houston, is the largest transporter of Canadian oil into the U.S. Even before the new pipeline, Canada already is the largest supplier of oil to the U.S., topping Venezuela, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

* The steel pipe is made in Saskatchewan from recycled steel in electric arc furnaces -- as opposed to steel made from iron ore made in blast furnaces. Officials note about 15 percent of the raw product is virgin ore.

* The company says it has obtained more than 60 federal, state and tribal permits for the pipeline and that the federal environmental impact statement totals more than 3,700 printed pages.

Monaco said Enbridge has passed through "unprecedented regulatory scrutiny'' with flying colors. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees pipeline safety, agreed.

Company officials said that while Oberstar helped champion the project to clear regulatory hurdles, he also insisted on additional safeguards above and beyond federal requirements that cost the company more money.

"They went the extra mile to make sure this will be the safest pipeline ever built,'' Oberstar said. "They are going to use an ultrasound to test not just on a few select pieces, but every single piece of pipe that is welded.''

But environmental groups say the company's track record is far from stellar. There have been dozens of spills, most of them small, along the existing Enbridge pipelines across northern Minnesota, opponents note. And they have expressed concern over where the oil is coming from, what kind it is and how it is mined, with opponents claiming that tar-sands oil is among the most polluting and energy intensive and damages Canadian boreal forests.

Some members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe have challenged the pipeline crossing reservation land in tribal courts. Other challenges against the project based on environmental effects, including carbon emissions, remain in state and federal courts.

Oberstar said the company's extra effort during permitting makes the project "'bulletproof'' to any lawsuits from opponents, and he said the U.S. is more secure getting oil from a peaceful neighbor.

"Better to mine that fuel in Canada than get it from OPEC,'' he said.

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