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Bakken pipeline decision may not come until March

Iowa Utilities Board holds final day of deliberations in Des Moines

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DES MOINES — Iowa continues to clog the path of an interstate crude oil pipeline from North Dakota’s Bakken and Three Forks oil fields, through South Dakota and Iowa, to a distribution terminal in Illinois. after regulators concluded four days of deliberation without reaching a decision on a hazardous liquid permit request.

The fate of the $3.8 billion, 1,168-mile underground pipeline rests largely on the interpretation of thousands of pages of testimony, records and law by the three-member Iowa Utilities Board. Iowa is the lone holdout after South Dakota and Illinois board approved the project in December and North Dakota in January.

“They seem to be overwhelmed with information, and that is going to take a gigantic effort to sort through the issues and the 3,000-some pages of testimony. I don’t know how you hold it all in your mind,” said Dick Lamb, 73, one of 296 landowners refusing to sell to pipeline developer Dakota Access, LLC. “Iowa being the last state, it’s just an enormous decision. It comes down to three people weighing this $3 billion-class project.”

Rather than rule on the permit and eminent domain to condemn property on the proposed route, the board instead scheduled a meeting on Feb. 19 to discuss possible terms and conditions for a deal and March 9-10 for future deliberations, signaling a decision is likely a month away or more.

“That date has been picked based on our belief that we’ll be able to direct general counsel next Friday to proceed with some additional comments related to eminent domain and other constitutional issues we believe have been raised in this case,” Iowa Utilities Board chairwoman Geri Huser said.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an activist group opposed to the pipeline, issued a vote of “no confidence,” after deliberations concluded, saying in a statement no precedent exists to grant eminent domain and board members “demonstrated incompetence and a lack of mastery of permitting issues throughout the four days of hearings.”

The delay in the ruling no doubt is a setback for Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, which was geared up enough they signed deals with contractors and stockpiled hundreds of miles worth of 30-inch diameter pipes at the midpoint of the 346-mile Iowa segment.

The proposed route would pass through 18 Iowa counties from northwest to southeast, mostly through farm land.

The Iowa Utilities Board has pushed back its timeline a few times already. Last year, the board indicated a decision was likely in December or January, and later suggested February. Dakota Access had hoped to begin construction early this year and have the pipeline operational by the end of the year, and filed a motion calling for Iowa Utilities Board to speed up its process.

Now it looks like a vote could come in March.

“The Board has the authority to issue a decision at any time, but the current plan is to review the proposed order at the March meetings,” Iowa Utilities Board spokesman Don Tormey said.

On Thursday, Dakota Access kept a positive outlook on the proceedings.

“We remain focused on supporting the Iowa Utilities Board board as they proceed through their process,” Vicki Granado, a Dakota Access spokeswoman, said by email, adding easement deals have been reached with 80 percent of Iowa landowners.

During Thursday’s deliberation, board members suggested the safety of transportation of oil versus rail is not likely to weigh heavily in the decision given all modes of transportation have risks. While not reaching any conclusion, they also discussed whether right of way payments compensates landowners enough, what should happen if the pipeline is abandoned, whether additional environmental tests are needed, and how to hold Dakota Access liable in the event of a spill.

“I have damages that occur on my property and the person I have to find and the contact people I have to find are not in the state of Iowa, it’s not that easy,” Huser said. “I think that is a weighing factor for making sure there’s a condition upon the ability for our landowners to get back.”

Critics of the project have called for the board to reject pipeline, among other reasons, because it would enable greater consumption of oil and thus negatively impact global climate change. Board members suggested the topic may expose philosophical disagreements, but it appears the decision won’t be hung up on this point.

“I don’t know that we do need to get into the merits of whether we do believe or don’t believe it is occurring or is man-made or is caused by fossil fuel or anything else,” board member Nick Wagner said. “The fact that the use of fossil fuels and use of oils is driven by demand is a major factor from my perspective and I don’t think the pipeline changes significantly the demand or production.”

Huser said she believes they are on common ground on how climate change fits into the decision.

“The law says weigh this against the other items before us, so as long as you are willing to admit it is a critical concern and we can put that into any order that comes out, I believe we are on the same page, Mr. Wagner,” Huser said.

Rod Boshart contributed to this story.

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