ST. PAUL (WCCO) — Labor unions are celebrating Friday’s decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approving the need for a controversial oil pipeline.

Although it still needs a permit for the selected route, the Sandpiper pipeline would carry North Dakota crude oil to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. The $2.6 billion project is designed to take Bakken crude oil off rail cars and pump it across the state in a large underground pipeline. The route from North Dakota to the Twin Ports is over 600 miles and will travel through both 24 and 30-inch diameter pipe.

On Friday, the five PUC Commissioners debated for several hours before deciding that the project’s overall benefits outweigh any potential risks. After amending the recommendations of an administrative law judge, commissioners approved the certificate of need on a unanimous voice vote. The action will grant Sandpiper the first of two necessary state permits.

“It’s a major step in the regulatory process,” Enbridge spokesperson Lorraine Little said.

Little says the pipeline will carry crude oil more safely and with more efficiency than transporting it by rail.

“What you’ve seen is a major increase in rail traffic because there isn’t enough pipeline in place to move that oil,” Little said

Opponents who have worked to get the project stopped argue the pipeline’s proposed route crosses some of Minnesota’s most sensitive water resources. Primarily, it comes far too close to the Mississippi River headwaters at lake Itasca.

“The headwaters is probably an ecologically sensitive area, so we’re not sure how they’re going to get around that aspect of it,” Carlton County Land Steward spokesman Steve Schulstrom said.

In the meantime, state union leaders embraced the vote calling it a win for jobs, rail congestion and the environment.

The next step in the process is to win approval of a route, a process that will also include further environmental review. Should the project receive a route permit construction could begin as early summer 2016.

Bill Hudson