Back in January 2015, The New York Times published an op-ed by Dan Kaufman titled “The Other Pipeline You Should Worry About.” The pipeline at issue was Enbridge’s Line 61, which carries toxic tar sands oil through the heart of Wisconsin, from Superior to Delavan. Line 61 is owned by Enbridge, a $130 billion Canadian company that wants to expand its pipeline network to transport tar sands from the Canadian boreal forests through the Midwest, some of it headed to Gulf Coast refineries for export onto the world market. This is a company that was responsible for more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010, including the largest inland oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, the 2010 Kalamazoo River disaster.
So what was it that Kaufman was telling us to be worried about? In 2015, Enbridge was aiming to increase Line 61’s capacity from 400,000 to 1.2 million barrels per day, dwarfing the Keystone XL. “The last real line of defense against this expansion,” Kaufman wrote, “is an obscure zoning committee in Dane County, Wis.”
Our Dane County Zoning and Land Regulation Committee ended up taking a bold and precedent-setting stand. It made the permit for Line 61 expansion conditional upon Enbridge’s purchase of environmental impairment liability (EIL) insurance — special environmental cleanup insurance — to protect the county in case of a spill.
Now jump ahead to April 23, when an administrative law judge in Minnesota issued her recommendations to the state’s Public Utilities Commission on Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 replacement pipeline. This pipeline would bring an additional 530,000 barrels of tar sands oil into Superior every day, with implications for Wisconsin. That extra oil would have to go somewhere, and the only practical solution for Enbridge would be to build another pipeline — the Line 61 “twin,” aka Line 66 — along its existing corridor.
While the Minnesota judge recommended approval of Line 3 — despite fierce opposition by tribal members and environmentalists — she also recommended imposing a set of conditions that may effectively sink the project. And it was the courageous leadership of the Dane County ZLR Committee that paved the way for some of these. In particular, the judge recommended that the Public Utilities Commission impose the same cleanup insurance condition on Enbridge that the ZLR had imposed back in 2015.
But the ZLR’s attempt to protect Dane County was thwarted by state leaders in thrall to Enbridge. Shortly after the committee adopted the insurance requirement, a new provision was inserted into the state budget prohibiting counties from imposing such requirements on a pipeline company. The provision was passed by the right-wing Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in July 2015.
The fate of the ZLR’s insurance requirement is still playing out in the Wisconsin courts, with a decision expected from the Court of Appeals within a month or two. If the court restores the insurance requirement or remands the case back to the ZLR, Dane County may yet be accorded the protection the ZLR intended.
The Minnesota decision was issued after months of evidentiary testimony in an exhaustive state permitting process that Minnesota’s statutes provide for, but Wisconsin’s do not. The fact that Minnesota’s deliberative conclusions on insurance followed Dane County’s lead speaks to the wisdom of the county’s actions back in 2015. Regardless of what happens next in Dane County, the bold precedent set by the ZLR may well play a critical future role in curtailing the flow of toxic, climate change-inducing oil in Minnesota and beyond.
Mary Beth Elliott, Ph.D., is leader of the 350 Madison tar sands group.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.