Demand versus need in Minnesota’s oil pipelines

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The Midwest and Great Lakes are quickly becoming a hub for transporting and refining one of the world’s dirtiest and most destructive fossil fuels on the planet: tar sands oil.

Pipelines in the area are nothing new, but over the last several years the region’s infrastructure has seen a dramatic transformation: a Canadian company, Enbridge Energy Partners, is undertaking a massive expansion of its system. If successful, this expansion will expose the already threatened Great Lakes to larger and more toxic pipeline spills and lay the groundwork for increased carbon emissions that undercut our region’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution.

Enbridge wants to expand the existing pipelines because they say the refineries the company serves have increased their orders for oil. But is that demand actually a “need?” What constitutes need? Does our society “need” more oil? Or are there better, more sustainable solutions to our growing energy demands?

If expanded, the Alberta Clipper pipeline will be nearly the size of the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline and carry 800,000 barrels per day from the tar sands oil formations of Alberta, Canada, to the Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. That’s enough fuel flowing through a pipeline to fuel 22 million cars.

Most of the oil sent to the Superior refinery is later shipped to market further east. Even without the proposed expansions, the pipelines coming into Superior already exceed the capacity of those going out at a rate of around 400,000 barrels per day. This excess capacity has recently led to proposals to load crude oil on barges in Superior and ship them across Lake Superior and the Great Lakes.

The public speaks

This spring, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) held a series of public hearings on a Certificate of Need for the proposed expansion of the crude oil pipeline. The fundamental question to be answered is, does Minnesota need this pipeline?

The PUC hearings were well-attended. In Duluth, approximately 60 people spoke. The divide between supporters and opponents could hardly have been more clear. Virtually everyone who spoke in favor of the pipeline had some sort of potential economic gain from the project moving forward, for example a contractor to Enbridge, a vendor for construction services, or an Enbridge business partner. Virtually everyone who spoke against the project spoke on behalf of the greater public benefit: clean water and clean energy, in addition to the personal losses they would experience.

The opponents to the project outnumbered supporters 3:2.

Since the goal of the hearings was to guide the determination of whether the project was actually “needed,” one quiet voice said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. Jane, from Duluth, spoke at length about her own struggles with defining “need.” She lives simply, travels Duluth by bus and by foot. She spoke about need versus demand. Just because Enbridge’s customers ask for more oil doesn’t mean they need it.

“Demand is not need,” Jane testified. She just booked a cheap flight to visit friends, but “I don’t need to do that, I just wanted to.”

Demand is not need

Demand is our consumer society looking for the best possible deal to sate our consumptive appetites. What if that pipeline were not expanded? Market forces would make us pay more for the gas to power our trips to the shopping mall, or to heat our McMansions.

Minnesotans need clean water. Minnesotans need clean air.

Minnesotans do not need increased threats of toxic spills and increased greenhouse gas emissions that come with oil pipelines.

Enbridge may be able to demonstrate to the PUC, in the language of business and economics and markets, that the Alberta Clipper expansion is “demanded.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s needed.