Brent Murcia, 3L, Plays Pivotal Role in Legal Battle Against Pipeline

Near Cloquet, less than a mile away from where construction on the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline is taking place, dozens of people sleep in tents and protest the project in shifts.

Meanwhile, in the Twin Cities, there’s a different front in the battle against Line 3. A group of young people called the Youth Climate Intervenors is using legal means to stop the pipeline. Their goal is to overturn the Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) February 2020 approval of Line 3, and with help from a Minnesota Law student, argued before a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in late March.

Brent Murcia, 3L, helped start the group before he came to Minnesota Law, and it initially had no legal representative. Legal resistance to Enbridge previously had mostly come from environmental groups and tribal governments.

“I hadn’t even applied to law school yet, but I was active as an organizer on climate issues,” says Murcia. “We were looking for a way to engage with the legal process and try and bring a new voice.”

The group was truly a DIY effort. Murcia and the rest of the group learned the administrative law process from online research, and brought in volunteer expert witnesses to help build their case.

The final permits for the Minnesota section of Line 3 were issued by Minnesota agencies last November. The facility would pump oil sands and other forms of crude oil from Alberta to Wisconsin, cutting through Native American land along the way.

Construction is long since underway, so any efforts to delay or halt the project will have a steep hill to climb. But the Youth Climate Intervenors are determined to be heard.

Second Appeal

The group’s initial appeal two years ago was prepared with help from Minnesota Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Clinic, which is run by adjunct professors who are attorneys at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.  But, as a result of a related appeal, the case was sent back to the PUC before being decided. This time around on the second appeal, Murcia, now enrolled in the clinic, represented the Youth Climate Intervenors with the help of the MCEA attorneys.

“There are a lot of groups working on this,” says Amelia Vohs, attorney for MCEA and one of the adjunct professors for the Clinic. “But when Brent approached us, [the Youth Climate Intervenors] had already done an incredible job of representing themselves, and it was clear they brought a unique perspective to this case. We agreed this was a great project for the Clinic, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the Youth Climate Intervenors’ legal team.”

Before the Court of Appeals panel, the Youth Climate Intervenors presented a refined version of the argument they’ve maintained all along —that the PUC approved the pipeline without properly considering the climate impacts it would have in Minnesota.

“The fact that it comes with a social cost of $287 billion wasn’t properly taken into account,” says Murcia. 

The group also argued that PUC didn’t consider the demand for the energy that would come from this facility, which it feels Enbridge has not shown. 

“That’s the standard,” says Professor Alexandra Klass, head of the Law School's Environmental & Energy Law Concentration. “Is there a proven need for this pipeline?
Adding a wrinkle to the controversial project is that the state Department of Commerce, contrary to the PUC, has opposed the project, citing the lack of an energy demand forecast. Klass says that conflict meant there were attorneys from the state attorney general’s office representing both sides of the case.

Klass adds that having students such as Murcia work with government agencies and nonprofits is a win-win for all parties opposing Line 3.

“We’ve had various attorneys at MCEA, including Amelia, be adjunct professors for the clinic,” says Klass. “That allows students to work directly with the lawyers who are in the clinic they’re interested in, and to actually be a lawyer for the organization they’re working with.”

Clinical Experience 'Prepared Me Well'

The case was argued before Court of Appeals judges Lucinda Jesson, Peter Reyes, and Michael Kirk on March 23.

Murcia says that a team of five attorneys representing various parties opposing the pipeline split 30 minutes of argument and 10 more of rebuttal, with each lawyer focusing on different facets of the issue.

“It went well,” says Murcia. “During my five minutes for the Youth Climate Intervenors, I argued that the PUC failed to consider Line 3’s lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions in its decision to approve the project. The panel was very engaged with the argument and had good questions for all of the parties, including us.” 

In particular, Murcia says the court asked numerous questions about whether or not Enbridge provided the statutorily required long-range energy demand forecast. The PUC’s lawyers argued that according to the commission’s definition of demand, it did.

It will likely be well into summer before the court hands down a decision, but for now Murcia is glad for the experience.

“It was exciting,” he says. “The clinic, and other law school opportunities – such as being on our energy and sustainability moot court competition team -- prepared me well and helped me feel confident in court.”

--By Dan Heilman, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer