Enbridge: ‘Alarmist’ U-M study on a Straits of Mackinac oil spill is inaccurate

A recent study sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has left the wrong impression on what could happen on our Great Lakes.

This study, conducted by the University of Michigan on behalf of the NWF, used a computer model to predict the environmental impacts of a worst-case oil spill by Line 5 in the Great Lakes. If a release were to happen, this type of study – conducted correctly – could help determine the path of light oil in the complex currents around the Straits of Mackinac.

Unfortunately, the NWF-sponsored study is flawed. Here’s why.

When you build a computer model to predict the environmental outcome of a hypothetical underwater pipeline oil release, it is essential to get the original inputs right.

One such problem is the amount of volume released into the environment. The NWF-sponsored study assumed a volume that is up to five times higher than the maximum possible under the current configuration of Line 5.

In the event of a pipeline failure, shut off valves located on either side of the Straits of Mackinac would automatically activate. The flow of product into the parallel lines would be shut down within three minutes of a detected drop in pressure and trained responders would take action.

The study didn’t take these important safeguards into account. When you overestimate the amount of oil in the environment, you exaggerate the overall impact.

Next, the study allowed the spill model to run for days, weeks, and into months, assuming no oil response or recovery by Enbridge or any of the other response agencies in the region. This, too, misses the mark.

Pipeline companies are required by law to have Emergency Response procedures and equipment in place that will allow them to effectively respond to an incident, even if the likelihood of a release is remote. In reality, Enbridge cleanup and containment equipment would be activated immediately following a release and oil recovery would commence quickly.

Enbridge regularly tests its emergency response plans for the Straits of Mackinac with local, state and federal response agencies – including the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The most recent exercise took place in September 2015 and included, in addition to the federal agencies listed above, local emergency management officials, tribal representatives and state agencies.

Further, the study fails to consider a range of factors that determine what happens to the oil from a release as it moves in the water. These processes are critical to predicting the outcome of an oil release.

In short, while the NWF-sponsored study may do a good job of tracking water molecules in the Great Lakes, it fails to consider how light oil molecules actually behave in water. It also fails to consider the effects of wind, a key factor in spill trajectory.

That study leads one to believe that up to 700 miles of shoreline could be impacted by an oil release in the area. When all factors are considered, the reality is that such a number is completely unrealistic and becomes alarmist.

In conclusion, I can’t emphasize enough the importance we place on keeping the Straits safe while delivering the energy Michigan depends on every day. We understand how important the Straits and Great Lakes are to Michigan residents. Our top priority is to protect this essential environment.

Protecting the Great Lakes is important; it is imperative we work together to get the analyses right. Enbridge would be pleased to participate in research of this nature to ensure a consistent, accurate picture that can be used broadly for planning purposes.

We look forward to a continuing conversation on Line 5 and to working collaboratively and transparently to ensure the pipeline continues to operate safely and reliably.

Don’t hesitate to write or call us if you have questions or want to discuss. We’re available at www.enbridge.com/line5.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Thu, 04/28/2016 - 9:50am
A trust issue Enbridge or the University of Michigan - I go with the Maize and Blue. Look at Enbridge's history enough said!!
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 10:23am
Charles, Are you sure it is about trust instead of who requested the simulation and what they asked to be simulated. If request was to simulate the BP Gulf incident then wouldn't you expect the simulation to provide BP incident type results? If the simulation was for a pipeline incident, such as a gas or water line failure where the supply is control by a valve or pump that can be closed or turned off in minutes of hours, wouldn't that provide a different result? Maybe the question should be what did the requester want to do with the results and how were they planning to use them. If they want to shutdown the pipeline and get high media visibility might they use the most extreme scenario? If they wanted to evaluate the current response system to improve it or if they wanted to develop new state or agency responses for water and land wouldn't they use one that better represented the more likely type event? I trust the people running the simulation to do it as they have done it before, and let the results be what they may. I would expect the simulations for the Great Lakes would be different from the Gulf. What I would like to know is who described the incident to simulations and what were the parameters they used before I would apply/judge the results.
Michael J
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:02am
Thanks for this information Brad. However, from what I understand (granted I don't have all the facts) Enbridge has chosen not to provide full disclosure of all the factors that are at play in ensuring Line 5 is safe. Why not? I live in Kalamazoo and our river has been messed up for years because of your company's spill. When I see less than full cooperation and it involves the Great Lakes perhaps you can understand why I get really worried, really fast.
Ryan Duffy
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 11:02am
Hi Michael, Since the summer of 2014, Enbridge has offered its Operational Reliability Report publicly, which includes detailed findings from the inspections conducted by third party service firms. Since then, we have also created a section on Enbridge.com/line5 that houses all of the details of our inspection reports. This information is publicly available. Enbridge provided complete and thorough information to the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force from the beginning. However, it was determined that while the information provided was thorough, it may have been too detailed and hard to understand. We are currently working with the Task Force advisory committee to provide the necessary information for third parties to conduct a risk analysis.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:24am
The former editor of our local newspaper had a great suggestion that Enbridge should take out an insurance policy to cover the damages when the spill happens. If there is little likelihood of a spill, as Enbridge maintains, the insurance should be reasonably cheap. When the spill happens, if it is in the winter under the ice or during high winds, the damage could be quite extensive and we want assurances that Enbridge, or the insurance company, has the fiscal resources to fully correct the environment and economic damages.
Jim Fuscaldo
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:26am
The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution is the authority for exclusive federal jurisdiction over pipelines transporting hazardous substances in interstate commerce, such as Enbridge Pipeline No. 5. Congress has delegated its authority to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). PHMSA has jurisdiction over pipelines that crosses waterways used for commercial navigation such as Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. A state with certification from PHMSA may serve as PHMSA’s agent for purposes of inspecting interstate hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. States cannot apply any of its own regulations to those facilities, nor does it have the power to remove or shut down any pipelines without federal authorization. Congress has authorized the states to regulate the intrastate transportation of hazardous liquids by pipeline, such as the pipeline under the Kalamazoo River. A state is allowed to regulate a pipeline if located wholly within its borders, provided that state has a current certification or agreement with PHMSA and has adopted standards compatible with the minimum federal requirements. Consequently, the state of Michigan lacks the jurisdictional power to effect the removal or shut down of Enbridge Pipeline 5. Empirical evidence, based on inspection results, that Enbridge Pipeline 5 poses a substantial risk to Lake Michigan and its environs should be the basis for a complaint with the PHMSA. However, if the inspection data provided by either the PHMSA or the state of Michigan as agent for PHMSA does not support allegations of a pending calamity that should end the matter. Computer simulations are NOT empirical evidence.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:35am
I still want to know what is in it for MI. with this pipe line in Lake Huron.? Enbridge has surely not been transparent . Let mo know. R/.L.
John Q.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:40am
Trust us says Enbridge! If the pipeline fails, it will shut down automatically. Why didn't that happen when the pipeline failed and flooded the Kalamazoo River with oil?
Ryan Duffy
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 10:52am
John Q and Leonard, we regret the spill in the summer of 2010 that caused oil to flow into the Kalamazoo River. Those were the darkest days in our company’s history and we will never forget. Since then, Enbridge has transformed its approach to safety, investing nearly $4 billion in enhanced monitoring, safer pipelines, and more staff to keep operations safe. Misinterpreting the drop in pressure on the line, operators restarted line 6B which increased the volume spilled. That won’t happen on Line 5. If there is a change in pressure on the Straits crossing, automatic shut off valves will be activated closing flow into the lines. Also, the Line 6B failure occurred due to a crack. Due to the Straits crossing’s seamless construction, low operating pressures, high performance coating, and low susceptible environment, the Straits pipelines are not susceptible to that kind of cracking threat. Ryan Duffy Enbridge
Betty Bushe
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:43am
Why would anyone even think of taking a chance on a spill? If there is a 1% chance of a rupture, that is too high. Shut it down!
Tue, 05/03/2016 - 6:15pm
Risking 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water just doesn't make sense. The Great Lakes are all about our economy and way of life. We don't need this pipeline.
Tony Infante
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 11:35am
Here we have a PR flak (without any scientific or engineering credential) disputing the findings of a UM scientist (Dr. Schwab) that has been studying currents of the Great Lakes for almost forty years. Shamla doesn't provide any scientific evidence to substantiate his claims, and in fact makes statements that sound as if he didn't even understand or comprehend Schwab's findings. He starts with: "If a release were to happen, this type of study – conducted correctly – could help determine the path of light oil in the complex currents around the Straits of Mackinac." The Schwab study ran over 800 different current scenarios to show where three different levels of oil release would be dispersed. So the premise of Schwab's ridiculous statement -that a single path could be determined -is just blather rather than critique since he couldn't and didn't describe such a scientifically impossible scenario. Shamla also claims that a rupture could be stopped within 3 minutes -though he can't provide you with an example of where such shutoff valves have worked. Nor can he explain what would happen to all the oil in the 5 miles section under the straits -even if a shut off valve worked that quickly. As someone who attended the drill spill exercise Enbridge conducted in the Straits last September -Shamla's assertion that the UM study doesn't factor response and recovery is infuriatingly laughable. Enbridge isn't capable of deploying an adequate number the vessels, containment boom or personnel to recover the maximum 30% of oil which optimal spill recoveries manage. Finally, as Dr Schwab informed an audience at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor this past Monday (4/25), his study or worst case spills in the straits did not and could not estimate the true worst cases of a spill in the straits which might occur during high waves -which are common in the area -or ice cover which is also the common state of affairs several months each year.
Janis Dietrich
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 12:25pm
I am grateful for the well thought out comments and agree that the danger to the Great Lakes demands our actions to hold Enbridge responsible for upgrading or eliminating the pipeline.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 12:51pm
A significant spill occurred from Line 5 November 1st 1999 when more than 220,000 gallons of oil and natural gas liquids gushed into a marsh near Crystal Falls in the Upper Peninsula. Like many pipeline failures around the country, Enbridge did not discover the rupture-a motorist driving by smelled the petroleum odor and called 911. After 400 nearby residents were evacuated, Enbridge officials ignited a resulting vapor cloud to prevent it from spreading, which sparked a raging fire that burned for 36 hours and scorched eight acres of land.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 4:29pm
I am a licensed professional engineer with experience in constructing and using simulation models. Simulations, like that in the UM study, are only as good as their initial conditions / inputs allow them to be. It sounds as if the UM study made some assumptions about the worst case leak scenario that Embridge finds unreasonable. One good way to resolve question would be to actually test the pipeline leak detection and shutoff system in the presence of National Wildlife Federation and UM observers, then re-run the simulation if the test values on time to detect and shut down a leak differ from UM's assumptions by more than 10% or so. That single revision would give a much fairer picture of the potential risk to the Mackinaw Straight and adjacent lakes. A pipeline leak from Embridge's #5 could be catastrophic, or it could be no worse than a number of historical accidents that resulted in the release of diesel fuel or lubricating oil from one or more shipwrecks which have occurred with decreasing frequency on the Great Lakes over the past several decades. Nor can either the state of Michigan or the US government unilaterally close down that pipeline without the cooperation of Ontario and Environment Canada authorities.
leonard klein
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 5:08pm
So---why was so much oil spilled when the pipeline failed and flooded the Kalamazoo River with oil? What was different?
Sun, 05/01/2016 - 8:46am
What is different is that in the Kalamazoo incident, human operators misinterpreted the pressure drop due to the leak, over-rode the shut down and re-started pumping. Since that human error cost Embridge Energy so very much money and bad publicity, they have changed their shut downs to automatic, and the procedure to require finding the reason for a pressure drop before restarting the flow of petroleum products.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 8:10pm
Brad Shamla is clearly living in an alternative universe. This is a circumstance where one single mistake will have horrendous consequences. I learned along time ago never let the fox guard the hen house......
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 4:15am
No one answered my question. What is in it for Mi. having that pipe line in Lake Huron? R.L.
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 10:32am
You think we should ban businesses from Michigan if they don't provide a service or product directly to people in Michigan? Do you think all of those trucks that the Governor wants a new bridge in Detroit to use should only be allowed in Michigan if that delivered something in Michigan? If one of those gas wells ships all of their gas out of state should it be shutdown? Should all the tourists who only want to see Michigan and not make anything for Michiganders should be ban? My concern when you ask what is in it for Michigan could seems to be wanting to isolate Michigan from businesses and make it an island unto itself. I suspect that if the material flowing through the pipeline ends up in Canada it will most likely provide for some company that is supplying something to Michigan.
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 10:41am
What I would like to know if Enbridge has/is reviewing OSHA 1910.119 or EPA RMP and how they are addressing those elements of the regulations [even though they don't apply to the pipeline]. I wonder if Enbridge has bench-marked with the companies that were significant contributors in the development of those elements in the regulations. Those companies make offer some valuable knowledge that could be leverage by Enbridge.
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 10:54am
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 7:11pm
Dan, I agree that when evaluating/designing an emergency response system you must consider a power fail. 'Enough' isn't said. It would take many work hours to provide a proper response. One needs to evaluate the means of stopping or mitigating a response device failures, but you need to weight the probability of such a failure and how to design for that. As an example if you have a shutoff valve such as a 'guillotine' type device and you design it to be closed pneumatically, then you include a 'fail' safe spring loaded ram or a pressurized cylinder that use the shutoff value control pneumatic system to hold them from failing. Thus if the air that should drive the shutoff value closed fails then that same failure will allow the 'fail' safe device to fail to that safe position closing that shutoff value. This approach would be part of an evaluation for each device, including what would cause the failure. There have been generations of building highly hazardous chemical operation [when power supplies were less reliable] with the expectation of total failure of electrical, steam, hydraulic, power surges from lightning strikes etc. with proven success. There are many such consideration for each part of a system, there are established methods [with proven success] for evaluating system, process, equipment, infra structure failure and what might cause the failure including natural causes such as earthquakes, floods, fire, etc. The concern you raise is correct and Enbridge should have used such approaches in assessing the risks associated with the pipeline.
Michael Delp
Fri, 04/29/2016 - 2:10pm
Of course you find it to be alarmist...that is basically your job to do so. Unfortunately, you represent a company which has a horrible water record here in Michigan. Your abject failure as a company in the Kakamazoo fiasco is now at the top of your corporate resume, but you are apparently trying to top it with something more devastatingly spectacular. Shut it down.
Sat, 04/30/2016 - 4:25pm
Blah blah blah, I don't care if it's only a tablespoon of oil IT IS TOO MUCH!!
Dick scott
Sun, 05/01/2016 - 7:13am
Good conversations. What are the alternatives to moving oil to refineries? Are their safer ways? Transport by train has risks and costs. Thanks for the link to information. I am among many who feel independent review of data will be equivalent or better than. Free information. Transparency has been a mantra for a long time, but looking at something through mirrors or prisms may be not transparent. In monitoring based on catastrophic risk, which is unexpected, is like living in Portland one need not worry about earthquakes, or in Iowa. Proper safeguards require ways to avoid human error, avoid leaks with loss of power and during fierce storms in Lakes
Sun, 05/01/2016 - 6:09pm
The point is one failure is catastrophic....there are no do overs.....or remediation......
Mon, 05/02/2016 - 10:38am
It has been stated that a leak would produce, at the very least, a 25 square mile spill. This would be devastating to the entire great lakes and doesn't even take into account a worse-case scenario. The bottom line is that it should be closed down as soon as possible to protect the largest fresh water system in the world.
Wed, 05/18/2016 - 4:42pm
I've seen photos of the pipeline with the legs the pipeline rests on seemingly broken. We're told that the pipeline has no seams but after sixty years are we really to trust that the pipe won't crack due to fatigue? It would seem the friction of the lake bottom due to currents or whatever would erode the pipe on the underside which is not visible even to divers. I've seen photos of the Alaskan pipeline which is built on legs high off the ground. I realize that tall legs are impractical in a lake but why doesn't Embridge fix the broken ones instead of having the pipe rest on the ground here and there?
Wed, 07/27/2016 - 10:18am
Here's the rub. I don't trust embridge. But then again I don't trust "experts" who only have theoretical knowledge and not hands on experience. Any good engineer will, if they are honest, tell you that there are often difference between theory and practice. We all know a joke like the engineer who dismantled the car and it still didn't work, vs the operator who gives it a slap of the hand and boom it runs just fine. I can show you computer model after computer model after computer model that shows how radio waves should work. But in practice I can show map after map after map of real data that doesn't line up. And yet people still consider the engineer the expert. Not the tech who's doing what it takes to make that computer model true(er) even if my education and degrees blow that engineers education and degrees out of the water. Imho both the computer model and this article are biased. We need to change the system. We need to change the payment. We need to make it so that the bias is taken away and is reviewed by those who can't make judgements based on the source.