WILLISTON, N.D. – Many unresolved issues remained Friday after the Public Service Commission concluded its final public hearing on what would be the largest crude oil pipeline in North Dakota.
Dakota Access LLC is still negotiating with landowners for more than 40 percent of the 358-mile pipeline route proposed in North Dakota.
The company, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, also has yet to reach an agreement with Enbridge about concerns the competitor has about areas where major crude oil pipelines will be close together and in some cases cross.
“It’s pretty clear after today that there’s more work to be done on this project,” Commissioner Randy Christmann said following a nearly 10-hour hearing in Williston.
Commission Chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said while commissioners received a lot of input from concerned landowners, fewer than a handful of people said they flat-out oppose it.
“I continue to be hopeful that the company will reach a voluntary agreement with a vast majority of landowners along this line,” Fedorchak said
Dakota Access proposes a 1,134-mile pipeline that would start near Stanley and carry crude oil to Patoka, Ill. The pipeline would initially carry 450,000 barrels per day and could be expanded to 570,000 barrels per day.
Dakota Access has acquired easements for 58 percent of the route mileage in North Dakota, said Micah Rorie, senior manager of land and right of way. That figure has not changed much since the PSC held similar public hearings in Mandan and Killdeer.
“At that rate, it’s going to be a long time before you get these easements acquired,” Christmann said.
While the level of voluntary participation is not a requirement for a PSC permit, it signals how acceptable a project is to the public, said Commissioner Brian Kalk.
Rorie said most negotiations are tied up with attorneys who represent about two-thirds of the remaining landowners, and he’s confident they’ll be finalizing more agreements soon.
Most landowners who testified Friday said they support the overall pipeline project, but they voiced strong objections to the way the company has handled negotiations.
“The company came into North Dakota and probably didn’t understand the culture that exists here,” said Vawnita Best, who testified on behalf of a grassroots group called the Greater McKenzie County Stewardship Group.
Best, who also is a McKenzie County commissioner, said she’s heard from many landowners who felt strong-armed or threatened with eminent domain by Dakota Access representatives.
Rorie testified that right-of-way agents go through an extensive code of conduct training and are instructed to refer questions about eminent domain to managers.
Some landowners have grown accustomed to getting route changes for small gathering pipelines, but changing the route is more difficult with such a large project, Rorie said. That is being interpreted by some as an unwillingness to work with landowners, he said.
Commissioners also pressed Dakota Access to seriously consider suggestions from private landowners when they have a strong case for route changes, including one alternative proposed to avoid rugged terrain near the Heart River.
Enbridge, a majority owner and operator of North Dakota Pipeline Co., intervened in the PSC hearing to voice concerns about areas where Enbridge pipelines will be in close proximity to the Dakota Access.
Robert Steede, regional director of operations, testified that Enbridge does not oppose the Dakota Access project, but wants to ensure the safety of its own operations.
About 13 miles of existing Enbridge pipelines between Stanley and Tioga are near the proposed Dakota Access route, and the two pipelines would cross seven times, Steede said. In addition, the construction timeline for Enbridge’s Sandpiper project could overlap with the construction of the Dakota Access project.
Enbridge asked the PSC to require that Dakota Access install its pipeline 50 feet away from existing Enbridge pipelines. Steede said that would ensure that construction equipment would not accidentally damage the existing Enbridge line and the separation would prevent confusion for landowners over which company was responsible for reclamation.
Enbridge also wants to ensure that the two companies will operate separate construction areas for its upcoming projects, Steede said.
Christmann said while he appreciates Enbridge’s concern for safety, he fears requiring all pipelines to be 50 feet apart would add more burden on landowners who already have multiple pipelines.
“Aren’t we just enhancing that landowner fatigue when two companies can’t come together and work together on a project?” Christmann said.
The issue of landowner fatigue was a common theme Friday, including testimony from Mountrail County landowner Brian Rice whose land would have the Dakota Access and Sandpiper in addition to existing pipelines.
“The question becomes, how much do you want us to give?” Rice asked.
Several members of area labor unions voiced support for their project and assured landowners that they work hard to protect the environment.
“We’re trained to take care of the right-of-way like it’s our own backyard,” said Matt Duncombe of East Grand Forks, Minn., a Laborers International Union of America union steward who has led environmental crews.
The Midwest Alliance of Infrastructure Now, a coalition that includes labor unions, the Greater North Dakota Chamber and others, also voiced support for the pipeline.
Kalk said the Dakota Access proposal is the most complex pipeline case he’s handled, and he wouldn’t venture a guess on when the utility regulators would make a decision on a permit.
“I’ve never come out of a hearing with this many variables,” Kalk said.