MINNEAPOLIS -- With a report on the Sandpiper pipeline project’s certificate of need coming in April, Enbridge CEO Al Monaco spoke on his company’s involvement in energy transportation in Minnesota here Friday.

Monaco made a half-hour long presentation at the Minneapolis Club for the Canada Minnesota Business Council. The transportation company is the parent company of the North Dakota Pipeline Company, which proposed the 616-mile pipeline that would stretch from near Tioga, N.D., to Clearbrook, Minn., and on to Superior, Wis.

Concerns about the impact of Sandpiper -- especially the environmental impact of ecologically sensitive areas in northern Minnesota the proposed route traverses -- has dragged out the permitting process.

“The Sandpiper will move American crude for American consumers, with Minnesota being the key player in that process,” Monaco said. “We considered the routing for the Sandpiper project probably in the thousands of hours. The objective that we have is making sure we have the best possible route to mitigate any issues that may arise. In this particular case, we think we have a very good route. “

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission set a new precedent by splitting consideration of Sandpiper’s certificate of need and routing permit proceedings, which Monaco said has delayed the project for more than a year.

Monaco also said the delay could lead to a stronger stance for the company.

“It’s easy to get focused on the day-to-day challenges and the issues that arise. But we’re supposed to manage these issues,” he said. “I think that when we look back on today from 10 years from now, I think the result of all this will be infrastructures (like oil pipelines) will be better. That’s what the general public wants, and we want to build trust in what we do. That’s key to our business, and it’s probably going to take longer (to build trust) with these regulatory processes.”

Part of building public trust has been Enbridge’s investment in developing new technologies to improve pipeline safety, Monaco said, whether it’s through partnering with established companies or funding startups.

“We never thought of a pipeline company as being into R&D, but we’ve had to have a component of that,” he said.

Priority No. 1 for Monaco has been pipeline safety, and the company’s focus in research in pipeline integrity demonstrates that, he said.

“The most immediately important and impactful have to do with integrity management,” he said. These pipelines are buried and are there for a long time, so our ability to assess them on a frequent basis and the best technology available are by far our best way to avoid incidents.”



Opposition

The consistent presence of protesters from environmental groups at events associate with Enbridge -- picketers stood along the southern sidewalk of the Minneapolis Club -- has been a reminder that there is still plenty of resistance to Sandpiper and other pipeline projects in the state.

Instead of seeing a challenge, Monaco says he sees their involvement as an opportunity for Enbridge.

“As leader of our company, it is my job to connect directly with stakeholders,” he told the crowd of more than 100 who gathered over lunch for Monaco’s speech, although he did later say he could not quickly recall meeting with any environmentalist groups in Minnesota.

“I’m certainly open to it, and our staff is open to it,” Monaco said of meeting with Minnesota groups. “Part of my approach is to meet with environmental groups, and I do find that sometimes the amount of common ground isn’t as much as I’d like. That’s because their objective is to shut us down, sometimes. I think we can find that common ground, which I think is, ‘How do we make the project better?’ If there is something that an environmental group or someone can give to us to make our project work better for everyone, then that’s important to us.”

Some of the common ground Enbridge and the environmental groups share is the company’s role in the growth of crude oil extraction in North America.

“That’s absolutely true,” Monaco said. “That’s how we look at our role in the economy: we enable the delivery of energy from supply basins to markets that want it.”

The concern environmentalists carry with that is global warming and the oil industry’s connection to it. Public safety hearings earlier this year were rife with strong rhetoric against expanding pipeline infrastructure.

Monaco says he has heard the arguments.

“At the end of the day, we all acknowledge that there are climate issues in the long run that we need to address. … We need to, over time, move to a low carbon footprint,” he said.

“But, the reality is we need energy. And that’s part of the equation that needs to be solved as well. We need to make sure we’re doing that in the safest way possible.”