Enbridge spent a day in January holding private meetings with elected officials in the Straits area to once again proclaim the safety of its Line 5 shortcut across Michigan to deliver Alberta oil to Sarnia, Canada. Ninety percent of the oil going under the Straits in the 63-year-old line ends up in Canada. So Enbridge gets its profits, Canada gets its oil, and Michigan gets most of the risk.
Our response, and the entire thrust of the Cheboygan-based Straits Area Concerned Citizens for Peace, Justice and the Environment's resolution (now approved by four northern counties, two northern cities and numerous townships), is rather simple: We really, really want to believe you, Enbridge. Why not just prove it?
The resolution seeks review of pipeline inspection data by an independent panel of pipeline experts. Enbridge tells us it’s disclosing inspection records. But the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force Report of July 2015 says just the opposite: “...(Enbridge) has not fully disclosed the actual results of most of the inspections or the limitations of the test methods used. By not providing the State with actual copies of test results and other State-requested documents, based upon assertions of confidentiality, Enbridge has limited opportunities for independent expert review." (Page 44.) Let's call this transparency discrepancy strike one.
Next, Enbridge tells us that spill damage costs not covered by its insurance will be paid directly by Enbridge. But we all know that when anyone's financial obligations exceed its ability to pay, the result is bankruptcy. Bankruptcy normally means long legal delays and something less, often much less, than full recovery of claims. The 1953 easement agreement contains broad "hold harmless" language requiring that Enbridge pay all costs and damages from its operations. However, no independent risk analysis of a “worst case” spill’s damages has been done.
How long would an oil spill cleanup lock down the straits? How long would St. Ignace, Mackinac and Bois Blanc Islands have all boating suspended, and their lake water intakes closed? How would this impact tourism? What about compensation for the loss in property values, property tax and business revenues? How do you even estimate environmental damages and remedial costs?
The only guarantee of payment to anyone damaged by a spill is from an insurance bond or surety in an amount adequate to pay every possible claim from a "worst case" spill. Fortunately, the easement requires that Enbridge secure such a bond. However, as the Task Force Report indicates (p. 46), Enbridge claims "it currently has a program of insurance for all its operations on its entire system totaling $700 million." It isn’t clear whether this "entire system" cap would be available for just a Line 5 spill disaster. More important, would even $700 million be adequate?
The lessons of Kalamazoo
Remember, the Line 6B Kalamazoo watershed 2010 oil spill and cleanup took over four years, at a cost of $1.2 billion. (Interestly, Enbridge uses a “worst case” damage range of $445 to $900 million.) Without an independent risk analysis and careful public review of its insurance policies, Enbridge is not in compliance with its easement obligation to guarantee that all oil spill damages and costs would be paid. Strike two.
Enbridge always spends much time at its private meetings telling government bodies how it is preparing and training for a spill. Given its less-than-stellar safety record, (since 1999, its system has annually experienced an average of 71 spills totalling 500,000 gallons) this is a prudent move. Recovery of oil in Lakes Michigan and Huron, with its surging straits currents, winds and weather conditions is problematic. Enbridge somehow avoids disclosing that a good oil cleanup effort recovers only 20 to 30 percent of the spill.
While we all tend to focus on the five miles of twin pipe under water in the straits, the probability for harm may be even greater for the other 640 miles of Line 5. These pipes are much thinner and more susceptible to construction-related accidents. They cross 20 rivers, countless wetlands and border hundreds of inland lakes (including Burt and Mullet). An oil rupture anywhere along the 90-mile U.S. 2 stretch (west of St. Ignace) would also pour directly into the Straits; what would a Kalamazoo-level spill at the Indian River crossing do to the Inland Waterway connecting Cheboygan to Petoskey?
Oil cleanup preparations are important, but just cannot be a source of much comfort. Enbridge pumps 23 million gallons a day in line 5. It took 17 hours to shut down Line 6B when it ruptured in July 2010. Yet, just ten days before that near-million-gallon spill, Enbridge told Congress that in the event of a system spill, its Canadian control room would "almost instantaneously" shut down the pumps. Another assurance that ruptured. Strike three, and that’s an out.
It’s time for Enbridge to honor its clear obligations under the easement agreement.
But there is an even more wishful thinking here: the state has not stepped up to the plate, either. We see the same inaction and delays being experienced by the citizens of Flint. But this is not a game, nor can we fairly compare our clean water risk to the terrible harm actually caused in Flint. Still, there appears to be a similar foot dragging when the need for immediate action should be obvious. The state has been on notice at least since the Kalamazoo disaster, yet almost six years later, we wait for them to do something to effectively protect the very heart and soul of our Pure Michigan identity.
Michigan has the right and obligation to enforce its 1953 easement agreement. The task force report involved a year of study and hearings to identify the pipeline problems and make recommendations. The governor responded by setting up yet another advisory board with terms expiring at the end of 2018, just in time for the new governor. Do we really need yet another report advising the state on what it can or should do?
Let’s avoid this potential three-year delay and point out the obvious: Protect our clean water from a horrific Canadian oil spill by enforcing the easement agreement now. Mr. Snyder, the last thing you and the people of Michigan need is another clean water/pipeline disaster during the remaining three years of your term.