Watchdog: UMD’s pipeline study was polluted by Enbridge money


Enbridge's pipeline will bring Minnesota $2 billion and 8.600 jobs, according to a UMD study. But the study was paid for by Enbridge, and used the company's data instead seeking independent sources. Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Enbridge Energy is fighting an arduous regulatory battle to build a new pipeline across northern Minnesota that would connect Canadian crude oil to Wisconsin. Construction is already underway at both ends, but Minnesota has yet to make up its mind about granting permits.

The state Department of Commerce dealt Enbridge a major blow in September, having found that Line 3 poses serious risks to Native communities and their environment, and concluding Minnesota lacks demand for more crude oil. The Public Utilities Commission will make the final call next spring.

But one thing that Enbridge does have going for it is a favorable economic forecast from the University of Minnesota Duluth, which estimated pipeline construction would bring $2 billion to the state and 8,600 jobs. That study has been widely cited in public hearings as well as the Duluth News Tribune, including a recent plea from the editorial board to approve the pipeline.

Yet a watchdog research group has now called that study into question, charging that UMD and the Duluth News Tribune failed to properly disclose their ties to the Enbridge-funded group that commissioned it.

“The conflicts of interest surrounding this study are huge,” said Derek Seidman, a researcher at Public Accountability Initiative. “Public universities exist for the purpose of public education and the public good, not as promotional vehicles for industry-backed research.”

A disclaimer attached to the UMD study states the university was “contacted by [Area Partnership for Economic Expansion] as an unbiased research entity.”

Seidman says that’s a vague clause that glosses over the more than $15,000 that APEX and Enbridge consultants have paid UMD to study the pipeline -- information that is only available through Freedom of Information Act requests. 

Additionally, UMD, Enbridge, and the Duluth News Tribune are all dues-paying members of APEX, while their representatives sit together on APEX's board of directors.

All these parties should have made their relationships clear when reporting or promoting the economic benefits of the pipline, Seidman says.

UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams says the study was never meant to be a cost-benefit analysis or endorsement. Rather, researchers were contracted by APEX and Enbridge to provide the service of simply modeling the pipeline's economic benefits based on data they provided.

APEX president Brian Hanson says he was disappointed to see the Public Accountability Initiative challenge the study, pointing out that APEX's website clearly lists all its members.

"To my knowledge, the [UMD's Bureau of Business and Economic Research] does not work for free," he says. "It is common practice for organizations, with various and often competing interests, to request research studies of this caliber. I’ve never seen a study where the price was listed."

The Duluth News Tribune did not returns requests for comment.

Here is the full Public Accountability Initiative report.


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