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Pipeline secrecy bill threatens Great Lakes, prevents accountability

The Great Lakes are Michigan’s most valuable natural resource and protecting them should be a top priority. Unfortunately, the Michigan Legislature is currently considering a bill that undermines crucial accountability measures for our state’s energy infrastructure.

House Bill 4540 would allow energy companies to conceal important information about oil and gas pipelines from the public and skirt state transparency laws. As written, the bill creates an unprecedented blanket exemption from public disclosure that would prevent Michigan stakeholders and landowners from accessing a broad array of information on pipelines and other energy infrastructure, including safety and inspection records, data on pipeline corrosion and leaks, and conditions of wells.

At a time when trust in our government’s ability to protect public health and safety is notoriously low, this bill would be a major step in the wrong direction. In light of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michiganders deserve more transparency not less access to information that can have public health impacts.

The public has a right to know about basic safety information for the pipelines and other infrastructure that run through our communities and pose a risk for the clean water on which we depend. This bill would severely undermine the critical transparency and accountability measures that are currently available to Michigan citizens.

Michiganders know too well what is at stake.

Just six years ago, a corroded pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy failed and spilled more than one million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, polluting 38 miles of the river and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. And more recently, the public’s attention has been gripped by the 63-year-old pipeline transporting 23 million gallons of oil every day below the Straits of Mackinac—a place where the risks of a spill are extremely high due to the volatile currents and difficulty containing the spill in inclement weather. Without question, a pipeline break in an area like the Straits of Mackinac would be devastating to our Great Lakes way of life, as well as our tourism, fishing and recreation industries.

Disclosure policies, like Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, enable public scrutiny and hold energy companies accountable for the quality and maintenance of their infrastructure. Disclosure also provides Michiganders directly impacted by energy infrastructure, such as landowners, the information they need to gauge what dangers exist and to protect their private property and their communities.

The Governor’s Petroleum Pipeline Task Force recently highlighted the important role played by transparency:

“The information and assurances provided by Enbridge to date do not resolve outstanding concerns about the Straits Pipelines and their future operation. With so much at stake neither the State nor the public has the information needed to independently validate Enbridge’s conclusions, and to determine whether Enbridge’s present and intended future operation of the Straits Pipeline is consistent with its legal obligations under the Easement.”

Unfortunately, as currently written, HB 4540 would only exacerbate this problem by taking even more of this information out of public access.

As steward of one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water, Michigan should be leading the way to ensure the safety of this critical resource. That safety starts with open and honest government oversight. Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act promotes public scrutiny and helps hold energy companies accountable for the quality, safety and security of their pipelines within our communities. These measures have the potential to prevent future disasters from devastating our Great Lakes, rivers and streams.

The bill sponsor has raised concerns on the need to factor security and safety into decisions about public disclosure of information on energy infrastructure. However those concerns are already covered by federal and state provisions. Despite this, there has been no rationale put forth by the bill’s sponsor about why Michigan should stand alone and in excess of federal law in restricting access to information about energy infrastructure.

I urge the Michigan Legislature to protect Michigan’s air, land and water and Michiganders’ right to know and vote NO on House Bill 4540. And I call on Gov. Snyder to protect our natural resources and support government transparency by opposing this plan.

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