A TIME-BOMB at the Straits?
Rally hopes to draw attention to an aging underwater oil pipeline.
June 30, 2013
The pipeline turned 60 this year. It is owned and operated by Enbridge, Inc., of Calgary, Alberta, the same company that owns and operates a pipeline that failed and caused the nation’s largest-ever inland oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in 2010.
Enbridge decided to increase the capacity of the pipeline this summer, a move opponents worry will unduly stress the line.
Most troubling to opponents, though, is that the pipeline runs underwater across the Mackinac Straits, where a failure could be devastating to Northern Michigan’s coastline, fisheries, and tourism industry and could cost the region billions of dollars.
Several groups interested in environmental and energy issues have organized a rally in St. Ignace July 14 to let more people know that the pipeline exists and to voice their concern that regulation of the pipeline is too lax.
They point to the capacity expansion the pipeline underwent this summer. The pipeline’s carrying capacity was increased without any public hearing or period for public comment.
Beth Wallace, community outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation who co-authored a report last fall about the danger the pipeline presents to the Straits, said it will take political pressure to change how Enbridge is regulated.
Part of the problem is so many people don’t even know the pipeline exists.
"The object of the rally is to call attention so that people know that pipeline is there," said Jim Dulzo, senior energy policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City. "A lot of people don’t know it’s there, particularly because it’s been there 60 years."
PIPELINE OPERATIONS OPAQUE
Critics argue oversight of pipelines is too opaque and its up to the whim of the operators whether to release information about operations.
For example, an Enbridge spokesman told the Northern Express this week that the carrying capacity expansion of the pipeline that crosses the Mackinac Straits has already been completed. (The expansion increased the rate of flow through the pipeline, it did not increase the size of the pipeline.)
That came as a shock to some critics, who were still working on a strategy to try to block the expansion, fearing that it will increase the chances of a catastrophic failure.
"That’s definitely news to me," Wallace said. "We asked that question to a representative two weeks ago and they’ve given me no response."
Wallace said she is astonished that companies like Enbridge are essentially selfregulated.
Evidence of that, she said, is that there was no public hearing or even public notice about the expansion of the Straits pipeline, which is known as line No. 5 and runs from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario.
Wallace said NWF attempts to get maintenance, safety and expansion records through Freedom of Information Act requests came up dry because of FOIA exemptions for pipeline companies put in place after pipelines were deemed a national security risk after 9/11.
REGULATOR GRAY AREA
Wallace believes Enbridge’s expansion of the pipeline stayed under the radar because the company has been required to release so little information about the project.
"With any other pipeline that we have known about, there has been a permitting process that goes on," she said. "For some reason, this pipeline has been able to bypass that Presidential Permit alteration process."
Construction of a new pipeline to replace No. 5 would require a Presidential Permit through the State Department because the pipeline crosses into Canada. That would require an environmental impact study and public hearings.
That’s what is required of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which is proposed from Alberta to the central United States, and its fate has become a national debate.
Apparently, much less is required when a company decides it would like to expand the carrying capacity of a 60-year-old pipeline.
"There seems to be a lot of gray area with the State Departmemt," Wallace said. "We can’t figure out where they are drawing the lines."
ENBRIDGE SAYS LINE IS SAFE
Enbridge insists its pipelines are safe, particularly pipeline No. 5 where it crosses the Straits. The company recognizes that is an environmentally critical area, said Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer.
He said pipeline No. 5 was pressure tested prior to the capacity expansion and that particular attention was paid to the section that crosses the Straits. The line passed the tests, he said.
Springer said the pipeline was constructed to last indefinitely as long as it is regularly inspected and maintained.
At the Straits, two pipes that are 20 inches in diameter connect to 30-inch pipes on each shore. The two underwater pipes are laid about 1,300 feet apart and they are made of thick steel, Springer said.
Devices are regularly sent into the pipes to test their integrity and remotely operated underwater vehicles inspect the outside of the line.
"We have found no issues with that pipe; no issues with the inline inspections," Springer said. "Those are very thick pipes."
LESSONS FROM KALAMAZOO?
Still, critics are baffled that a company responsible for the Kalamazoo River oil spill could be trusted to run a safe operation elsewhere, particularly in a critical area like the Mackinac Straits.
Wallace noted that while the clean-up for Kalamazoo cost Enbridge around $1 billion, the company’s revenue in 2011 was $26.4 billion, enough to dwarf losses from the spill and to easily absorb the $3.7 million federal civil penalty imposed on the company.
Springer said Enbridge learned from the Kalamazoo spill.
"That was a terrible, terrible incident," Springer said. "We have learned lessons from that. We are applying those lessons."
He said more than 99.9 percent of the oil products Enbridge transports get safely to their destination and the company keeps refineries running, which is critical for the economy.
HOPES TO REVERSE EXPANSION
Wallace hopes it isn’t too late to bring political pressure on Enbridge to force the company to reverse the capacity increase of the No. 5 line.
The NWF would also like to see several other steps taken, including requirements that Enbridge station emergency response teams in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace to be prepared to act fast if there is a spill. Currently emergency response teams are stationed hours away.
The NWF has also called for the 60-year-old No. 5 line to be replaced with a new, state-of-theart line of the same size.
Springer said Enbridge doesn’t believe those measures are necessary.
Springer disagrees that the No. 5 line, at the Straits in particular, is in danger of failing because of it’s age.
"We absolutely disagree with that, because a properly maintained pipeline ... should last indefinitely," he said.
He said the company believes its emergency response teams are located close enough to the Straits, and he said they regularly conduct training exercises at the Straits with the Coast Guard and local emergency responders.
"We do have response teams," he said.
"They may not be located where they want them, but they are within the standards required by the federal government."
COULD BE BIGGER THAN VALDEZ
Opponents won’t be happy until there is more transparency and better oversight.
They say the stakes are too high to trust Enbridge, which is under a federal "corrective order" because of numerous spills that have occurred on No. 5.
Wallace said it is impossible to know what the environmental impacts would be of a massive spill.
"You can be prepared as you want to be, but any spill at that location would be completely devastating," she said.
Wallace said she is afraid if a spill occurred, given how long it took operators to find out about the Kalamazoo spill, what flows into the Straits could eclipse what flowed from the Exxon Valdez.
"There needs to be a lot more public support and pressure on congressional members," she said.