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In this July 29, 2017 photo, volunteers and installers push into place an array of solar panels on the land of corn farmer Jim Carlson of Silver Creek, Ne., in the proposed path of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Nati Harnik/AP

Indigenous leaders in Minnesota are ratcheting up their opposition to Enbridge Inc.'s Line 3 expansion project, as regulators in that state and Nebraska face heated debates over two proposed Canadian pipelines that would expand export capacity from the oil sands.

Enbridge last week commenced construction of its Line 3 Replacement Program in Canada and Wisconsin where it has permits, and the Calgary-based firm appears confident it will win approval from Minnesota early next year. In Western Canada, political leaders welcomed the project – which will result in billions of dollars in investment and thousands of construction jobs – as a boon to an economy that has been hammered by low oil prices and an important addition to the industry's export capacity.

However, Native American bands continue to oppose the project in the state and, next weekend, a group of Indigenous youth will undertake a 360-kilometre canoe excursion on the upper Mississippi River to highlight their concerns.

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On Monday, Nebraska's public-utilities commission will commence a weeklong hearing into TransCanada Corp.'s planned Keystone XL pipeline, which has faced opposition from landowners, environmentalists and Indigenous leaders there. With the focus back on KXL in the state, five Nebraska tribes will sign the Treaty Alliance against Tar Sands Expansion, an anti-pipeline manifesto backed by more than 140 Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States.

The state approvals are one of the last major hurdles faced by Enbridge and TransCanada as they race forward with competing bids to move expanded volumes of Canadian oil to U.S. markets and particularly the U.S. Gulf Coast. However, Native American communities could resort to the courts, as First Nations have done in British Columbia, where they have asked federal court to overturn Ottawa's approval of Kinder Morgan Inc.'s TransMountain expansion.

In Minnesota, Indigenous communities are gearing up for a fight.

"Of the 11 tribes in Minnesota, not one has publicly supported Line 3," said Tara Houska, national campaigns director and lawyer for Honor the Earth, a U.S.-based Indigenous activist group. "Instead, there are very great concerns about this project because they are leaving the old pipeline in the ground. And it's the same concern as always: these are treaty lands it passes through, through watersheds, through wild-rice beds, through all kinds of wetlands that are highly vulnerable to tar sands spills."

Honor the Earth was deeply involved in the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline that resulted in high-profile standoffs with police and private security guards, and is pledging to mount similar action in Minnesota if the state approves the Line 3 route.

In a conference call last week, Enbridge chief executive officer Al Monaco played down the potential for problems, saying the company has consulted extensively with communities and Indigenous leaders along the route and has taken steps to accommodate their concerns.

"We've had very extensive and, I would say, productive engagement with communities along the way," he said. He said the company will "ensure communities and Indigenous people benefit through jobs, training and procurement opportunities for their local businesses.

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Regulatory delays in Minnesota have resulted in an escalation of the capital cost for the project, which will add some 375,000 barrels a day of export capacity from Alberta and can be expanded by another 500,000 b/d over time to deliver crude into key Midwest and Gulf Coast markets. Mr. Monaco said the capital cost is up 9 per cent from the company's 2014 projection to $9-billion.

The increased cost will be offset, however, by lower operating costs and a stronger U.S. dollar, and the project remains on track to get final approvals from Minnesota early next year and be in service in the second half of 2019, Enbridge said.

Applauded by Alberta and Saskatchewan governments, Enbridge kicked off construction last week at Hardisty, Alta., with a plan to replace 1,660 kilometres of pipe between Alberta and Superior, Wis., where it will feed into systems going east to Midwest markets and south to the Gulf Coast. It also began to work around Superior.

The industry is anxious to get new pipeline access to markets in the United States and in the Pacific Rim via Kinder Morgan's TransMountain line, though some analysts warn there won't be enough production growth over the next decade to fill the expanded TransMountain and Line3 lines as well as Keystone XL.

However, producers want all three built, said Steve Laut, president of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

"It's important that we have Keystone so that we can get to the U.S. Gulf Coast to access heavy oil markets," he said in an interview last week. "That's the biggest demand. It's also very important – and I think important for Canada – that [the TransMountaion expansion] gets built, so we diversify our markets away from one single market in the U.S.

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"They are both very important and it's critical for Canada that they both get built. … Line 3 is the same as Keystone. It's going to help us get heavy oil to the Gulf Coast. All those things are important."

Despite Mr. Monaco's upbeat assessment about the regulatory process in Minnesota, several tribes in the state filed comments with the regulator on a draft environmental-impact statement in which they make clear their opposition to the project.

In a submission, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa said it has not been persuaded of the need for it, and if it is built, they want it to be far from their territory.

"It is worth noting that this proposed project threatens the headwater regions of the two largest watersheds in North America, the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes and the Mississippi," the band said in its submission. "While the religious, spiritual and cultural significance of Lake Superior to the band cannot be overstated, it should be obvious enough to the broader population that the largest freshwater lake in the world must be protected."

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