ST. PAUL -- A Minnesota state commission provided a key approval Wednesday to a northern Minnesota oil pipeline expansion as chants of "shame on you" rang out in the downtown St. Paul meeting room.
"We are the people you represent," one of more than 100 protesters shouted as all five Public Utilities Commission members approved increasing the pipeline's capacity after a brief discussion of the pipeline issue with no chance for public testimony.
Pipeline opponents, mostly environmentalists and American Indian activists, stood in protest after PUC Chairwoman Beverly Heydinger announced that since written testimony already has been accepted and two public hearings were held, no public testimony would be accepted Wednesday.
"We will not sit until our speakers have had a chance to speak," one woman told Heydinger.
"I don't want to ask you to leave," the chairwoman said.
"We can't continue to kill our planet, it is the only one we have..." a man shouted from the middle of the room. "It is the only one we have."
The protesters quieted enough that state workers and representatives of Enbridge, the pipeline company, could make some brief comments.
The PUC staff recommendation to commissioners was that the project is needed and alternatives would be more costly or not as safe.
Several state and federal agencies are reviewing environmental issues.
Enbridge requests permission to increase the amount of oil moving from a southern Canadian oil field to Superior, Wis., from 450,000 barrels a day to 570,000. Known as the Alberta Clipper Project, the plan is to add five pumps near Viking, Clearbrook and Deer River at existing Enbridge facilities to increase oil flow.
No new pipeline would be needed, Enbridge said, and the expanded flow could be in operation a year from now. A second proposed expansion, not part of Wednesday's discussion, would boost the volume to 800,000 barrels a day.
The pipeline runs from near Hardisty, Alta., where oil comes from so-called tar sand formations, where environmentalists say oil production can ruin the land for thousands of years. It clips northeastern North Dakota and takes an east-southeast course to just south of Duluth, Minn.
The pipeline was built in 2009 and 2010. Another pipeline, built in 1949, is not part of the expansion discussion.
Becky Haase of Enbridge said the pipeline needs approval from federal, state and local governmental agencies, including the U.S. State Department, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
When the commission began to consider the pipeline, a half-dozen opponents sat down at the testifiers' table, then Heydinger said they would not be heard. Among them was Winona LaDuke, a well-known American Indian activist who twice was the Green Party vice presidential candidate.
Like many others, the White Earth Nation member is fighting the pipeline change because of the tar sands issue.
"Walking through their territory, what I saw was immense devastation," she wrote about a recent visit to the Canadian oil field in a letter to the editor last weekend. "I spoke to families who had experienced losses from bile duct cancers and a multitude of diseases which should have never existed in these communities."
Opponents said the state commission should only approve the pipeline if it benefited the state, but they said the oil is not destined for Minnesota and will not lower gasoline prices here.
Many of the protesters were from the Twin Cities, including Steve Clemens. He said he would engage in "non-violent" protests, such as blocking roads, to prevent the pipeline upgrade.
Marty Cobenais of Bemidji, part of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said the pipeline issue is major for his Red Lake community.
"This is huge," he said. "This is in our back yard."