How much longer can we delay action on the Straits pipeline?

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.

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Fri, 01/29/2016 - 12:26pm
Our State Government is no steward of our drinking water as proven by the lead contamination of Flint! Enbridge is no steward of our lakes, streams and drinking water of Michigan with their leaking oil lines! Citizens of Michigan must force this shut down before a rupture devastates our Great Lakes and fresh water! Both have proven to only interest in their own self interest!
Fri, 01/29/2016 - 3:49pm
Mr. Page brings up a number of valid arguments pertaining to Enbridge and its history. But I do have one question that I've yet to be heard asked regarding this: Exactly what is keeping anyone from going down there and doing an independent investigation of their own? It's not as if the exact location of the pipelines are a secret by any means (it's shown on the map on page 40 in the attached report). The "canyon" section of the Straits are not that deep for either a manned or unmanned team to conduct an inspection. And having someone on-site would also go a long way towards addressing the concerns about the effects of mussels on the exterior of the pipeline, along with any other concerns that have been made so far.
Fri, 01/29/2016 - 4:46pm
It's clear that this lobbying group isn't interested in any analysis that results in anything less than an immediate shutdown of the pipeline. However, if Michigan was to force such a shutdown without first allowing time for a replacement pipeline to be designed, environmental impact studies completed, and built, what would that do to the cost of petroleum products like heating oil in the rest of the Midwest? How big would the bill be for damages to Embridge, and to the refiners and fuel sellers? How many millions of dollars of taxes on fuel that wouldn't be sold would Michigan have to forego, while also having to pay for the losses of so many businesses? How long would it take to find a route, obtain easements, and construct a new pipeline over land? How many oil trains or tanker trucks - both much less safe ways to transport oil - will be run across our highways and rail lines during the years it would take to replace the Straits pipeline? And how many truck and train accidents will occur while we wait for that replacement? Also, Embridge is following recommendations from the Department of Homeland Security by not publicly releasing or giving the State of Michigan detailed data on the exact location and condition of their pipelines, above or below the surface. While "security through obscurity" can be overcome by determined researchers, right now it's all we have for infrastructure that's vulnerable to attacks of various sorts. A certain lack of transparency is much better than issuing open invitations, complete with GPS coordinates and a list of potential vulnerabilities to terrorists who might want to create exactly the kind of ecological catastrophe that these Straits Area Citizens find so worrisome. There is an excellent reason why the detailed data from any and all oil or gas pipeline testing is not normally entered into public records where anyone with a few hundred dollars can FOIA it. The criticism that Embridge is under-insured for the costs of a major spill may be valid, given the total costs of the Kalamazoo River clean up. Perhaps they need to increase their insurance coverage. And perhaps their insurance company would require an independent review of pipeline inspection data as part of negotiating the price of that higher coverage. This kind of approach, involving a 3rd party who becomes financially responsible for accidental oil discharge but is not subject to disclosure laws, might be more fruitful and much less damaging to the economy out of fear for the ecology of the Straits of Mackinaw.
Sun, 01/31/2016 - 3:13pm
Anna, This is about a clear and present danger so devastating to the Great Lakes it defies description. It isn't about heating oil costing another dime or whatever a gallon.
Mon, 02/01/2016 - 2:27pm
Fred - The cost of fuel for consumers wasn't and isn't my primary concern. Replacing the underwater pipeline with oil trains and/or oil tankers is even more risky to both the environment and to human life. And that's what we'll get if you shut down the pipeline abruptly. In addition, shutting down the pipeline for no clear reason makes the state of Michigan liable for a government "taking" of property. We taxpayers would be liable for the lost value of Embridge's pipeline, which will cost us much more than $0.10 / gallon of heating oil.
Rita M
Sun, 01/31/2016 - 10:10pm
The oil in the Line 5 pipeline only travels through Michigan. It does not stop for refining or transfer to another route. As Mr. Page indicated, Michigan takes the risk and has absolutely no gain. It is time to shut down Line 5.
Sat, 02/27/2016 - 12:49pm
There are 5 pipelines there. Look at the markers all the way down state. 1 of the lines is natural gas that fuels the Midland Consumers plant. In recent Freep articals: regular inspections are made.
Sat, 01/30/2016 - 7:55am
This issue will most likely get sidelined for the time being with all the concentration on the Flint water crisis.
Sun, 01/31/2016 - 8:22am
One should be mindful that Governor Snyder is faced with a Flint crisis that will certainly tarnish his legacy. It would seem prudent for him to consider addressing the Line 5 threat now to show he is not totally tone deaf to the environmental crisis looming ahead, and perhaps salvage part of his legacy.
John Grant
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 12:26pm
Maybe this is stupid, but why not have the pipe stopped well before going into the water, have trucks with reinforced tanks drive it across, and on the other side, build a pumping station to send it the rest of the way. No danger to the Great Lakes!!! The pipe is already built and the company would not have the insurance, aggravation, danger and bad PR that it has now. As far as I can tell, this would not take some engineering miracle and is well within accomplishing, even with 1970's technology.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 5:24pm
To pump 23 million gallons of crude per day into trucks and haul it across the Bridge before pumping it back into the pipeline is unimaginable. The sheer scale is prohibitive at multiple levels. You would need 2300 tanker loads each day to move that oil, loading and unloading one every 1.4 minutes at each end, continuously, year around. (> 7K gallons per minute, pumped safely!) No spills allowed. No breaks allowed. No breakdowns. No accidents. No traffic jams. No bridge construction delays. No traffic tickets or delays for safety inspections. A fresh full load every 85 seconds. Truck traffic on the Bridge would need to increase by 4600 trucks per day (2300 full and 2300 empty)--nearly 200 extra trucks per hour. One additional truck would hit the bridge every 20 seconds. Even assuming a minimum 25 mile round trip, no truck could realistically complete more than a few hauls in a perfect day. Recalling the tanker queues in the Dakota's just two years ago, 4 round trips per day per truck (rtpdpt) would be ambitious. That would require a fleet of about 1000 dedicated tankers, just to ferry crude across the bridge, including some spares and backups It would take 5 years to get the permits just for the parking lots at each end big enough for such a fleet. Not to mention the road improvements, pump stations, etc. And then, would we do it again at Port Huron? Not feasible. Not safe.