Opinion | Michigan has opportunity to take action against Line 5 pipeline

Kate Madigan is director of the Michigan Climate Action Network

Do you believe in fireflies? Kind of a silly question, since fireflies are real. We see them with our own eyes, wondrously blinking green in the summer night. We don’t use the words “believe in them” to discuss fireflies— mystical though they seem — because they are facts of our lives.

Another real thing we see with our own eyes is evidence of global warming. We see the overflowing and overheating Great Lakes, strengthening storms, breaching dams, record hot years, melting glaciers, raging wildfires, and much more. However, people still say “I believe in” or “I don’t believe in” climate change.

But we no longer have the luxury of viewing climate change as belief. Climate change is real and big, and we must deal with it in real and big ways. If we don’t, as the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed, impacts will keep getting worse, and the planet we leave our children and generations beyond will be seriously damaged. They will struggle with great challenges we could have prevented.

The solution to global warming consists of many pieces, and Michigan now has an opportunity to do something real about one of the bigger pieces. The Canadian oil pipeline company Enbridge seeks permits to build a pipeline tunnel through the soil beneath the Mackinac Straits. When burned, the fuel within the pipeline will annually generate more atmospheric carbon than the COMBINED carbon emissions of the U.S.’s top-three most polluting coal-burning power plants. 

If built, the pipeline would be a major contributor to global warming for up to 99 years —the permit period Enbridge requests. But scientists tell us we must eliminate climate emissions in a few decades, and cut carbon emissions in half within 10 years.

The Michigan Public Service Commission, which is deciding the fate of the Enbridge tunnel pipeline permit, has the legal duty to decide if a proposed project will harm human health and the environment. With global warming as the single greatest threat to the health of our planet today, the commission must give this issue the weight it’s due.

Climate change can no longer be relegated to a side mention—an unfortunate but unavoidable result of the need to keep the oil flowing, noted as we ink up the rubber stamp. Those days are past. Climate change must move to the center of the discussion and be a primary factor in the permit outcome.

The commission also has the duty to determine if feasible alternatives to the tunnel pipeline are available, and the answer is yes. The Pipeline Safety Advisory Board report found feasible alternatives to Line 5 more than two years ago. And fossil fuels are rapidly being replaced by electrification and renewable energy, which is now cheaper than coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear. 

As for oil consumption, automotive analysts expect sales of electric vehicles to surpass traditional vehicles in 2030. That shift would sharply diminish the need for oil surging through a pipeline in the Straits, and would arrive with about 95 years left on the tunnel permit. 

It’s tragic how successful the oil industry has been in bolting its fate to things like political party, patriotism, and even people’s faiths. But it’s time we remove those bolts and assess climate change apart, on its own, for what it is. Global warming is a problem of physics. It is caused by human-produced carbon in the atmosphere. We have the power to slow climate change and reverse it. 

Contact the Michigan Public Service Commission and Governor Whitmer before the Aug. 24 hearing to say Michigan must deny the Enbridge tunnel pipeline—based on sound science and legal duty.

The Michigan Climate Action Network has teamed with the Environmental Law & Policy Center to present testimony and supporting proof to the MPSC that the Enbridge tunnel permit should be denied.

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leonard page
Wed, 08/19/2020 - 9:33pm

line 5 pumps 540,000 barrels a day via the Michigan shortcut to Sarnia, Ontario. 0nly 6% stays in Michigan. several studies have concluded that a shutdowm would have almost no impact on retail gas and oil prices ( Dynamic Risk Alternative Study of 2017, paper by Gary Street August 2020) the proposed tunnel would contain a new line 5 segment which would carry volative natural gas liquids 20% of the time. A leak of ngls in a confined tunnel 20 feet in diameter and almost 5 miles long, would create the world's largest pipe bomb.

Fri, 08/21/2020 - 1:24pm

So first, I am an environmentalist, a humanist, and an environmental engineer. I tried Googling the paper you referenced, but nothing came up. Do you have a link?

My understanding is that Enbridge is replacing the Line 5 segment that passes through the Mackinac Strait. The current line is accessible from the bottom of the water. Enbridge is proposing to use Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) to drill over a hundred feet under the bottom, which would actually improve the safety of the pipeline in the unlikely event of a leak. This is because the HDD bore hole where the pipe is inserted either passes through impermeable material or will be encased in impermeable concrete. In the remote chance that a leak of oil or NGLs was to occur, the leak will follow the path of the bore hole up to the land surface, rather than into the water.

In regards to the analogy of a pipe bomb, that's actually not how it would work. In the case of a pipe bomb, the material encased in the pipe has both the fuel and the oxidizer already together in a closed system. So once the activation energy is applied to the system, the oxidation reaction quickly occurs and produces the heat and pressure needed to cause the container to rupture causing the explosion.

In the remote case of a leak of NGLs in a HDD bore hole, the NGLs would begin to travel towards both openings of the bore hole. If this was inside a closed system and heat was being applied to this system, this would cause what's called a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE--pronounced blev-ee). That's when the liquid inside should be boiling, but the increased pressure from heating up the liquid in a closed system prevents it from boiling into a gas. At some point, the pressure gets so great that the container ruptures. At this point everything "instantaneously" boils, causing a rapid expansion of gas, a.k.a. an explosion. This is closer to a pipebomb, albeit there is no oxidizer so it is a physical explosion rather than a chemical. Combustion could later occur if the liquid that caused the BLEVE was flammable and hit an ignition source with a gas/air mixture within the flammability limit (more on that below).

If Line 5 is shutdown and not replaced, the railcars that would replace the pipeline would be at risk from a BLEVE. So the alternative to not replacing the pipe would actually cause an increase of thousands of pipe bombs to travel across rail--not good when the railroad's normalized safety metrics are significantly worse than the pipeline industry's record.

Anyway back to the hypothetical NGL leak. Now the liquid and the liquid turned gas, which is denser than air, would begin to displace the air inside the borehole. A plug flow would occur where air is being forced out of both sides of the borehole as the liquid and gas begins to make it's way to the surface.

At this point, the gas/air (fuel/oxidizer) mixture at both ends of the plug flow would be the only mixture in what's called the flammability range, which is the sweet spot between the lower explosive limit and the upper explosive limit where ignition can occur. It wouldn't be until this mixture reached an ignition source (activation energy), which doesn't exist in the bore hole but instead exists somewhere on the surface, that combustion would occur.

Now when this occurs, the liquid and gas below the surface in the borehole would be above the upper explosive limit and would be too rich to burn. Without an oxidizer, there is no pipe bomb.

Hope this addresses your safety concern.

Sat, 08/22/2020 - 1:45pm

Yep, there's that, Leonard is right. I wrote to the MCSP about that risk of explosion also. I spoke at one of their meetings about that explosion and when I yelled, "BOOM" they all jumped. In my next letter to EGLE, (they are the permitting people), they give Enbridge the little pieces of paper that say it's ok to do this or that. I wrote about the tunneling company from down state that Enbridge chose to hire to build that tunnel. (you will be able to count on one hand the number of "local people" that they are hiring). They chose them because they were the cheapest. It could be a while before they can start work though. They are still in court over their last job, something about the raw sewage running down city streets because they used the cheapest steel they could find to build the tunnel so the raw sewage was seeping from it before people even knew what was going on. Children were playing in it in the streets and when the kids get sick we're all pretty sure that something is very wrong. Like in Flint, remember? Speaking of raw sewage, that was the subject of my last letter that I wrote to EGLE. Along with a number of other permits "dumping permits" are in their bailiwick. Yes dumping. Long story short Enbridge provided a list of household and hazardous bio chemical wastes, along with human feces that they plan to dump on the South shore of Lake Michigan 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, yearly. (non-stop) You'll have to look up the effect that these chemicals and the human waste have on our beach going summer visitors. We should all join together in a lottery and bet on how long it will be before all of our beautiful beaches are closed. It doesn't take long after exposure to feces for humans to show signs of severe sickness. If you are interested EGLE calls it the NPDES permit, HNY-TBJC-P. So I hope this helps someone understand some of the extra dangers. I'm all worn out from this fight and look so forward to someone else taking up the torch and fighting on to the day of the end of this life threatening disaster!

A Yooper
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 9:32am

I have written dozens of LTE's to our local paper attempting to inform readers.
I have signed dozens of petitions from so many organizations.
I have written to Governor Whitmer.
I have submitted letters to EGLE and the Army Corps of Engineers.
I had an online petition which garnered almost 5,000 signatures from people in all fifty states and 18 foreign countries who have visited the Upper Peninsula.
All of this over the last 10 years.

Fri, 08/21/2020 - 2:05pm

Bait and switch.

The Line 5 issue was supposed to be about protecting the Great Lakes from an oil spill at the Straits of Mackinac. Interesting how that argument changes when the company is proposing to build a tunnel to prevent that from happening.

Sat, 08/22/2020 - 11:15am

I missed it what is the upside for MI.??????????? R.L.

Al Warner
Sat, 08/22/2020 - 11:18am

Yes, it is beyond belief that it is a matter of belief for some ... still!! Well done, Kate.