Michigan’s Do-Nothing Approach to Protecting our Great Lakes

By on March 16th, 2018

Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Michigan’s Do-Nothing Approach to Protecting our Great Lakes

March 16, 2018

Expect nothing from the current Governor Rick Snyder administration except disappointment as the Line 5 oil and gas pipeline still cross the Straits posing real danger to northern Michigan’s environment, wildlife and state economy. Line 5 is the 645-mile pipeline built in 1953 and runs from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Canada. It transports up to 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids.

If anything is said at all, political observers say it will not be until late May, during the Detroit Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinac Policy Conference held at the Grand Hotel.  Instead of decommissioning and shutting it down after years of study and protest, the best that the government can come up with is a tunnel under the Straits.  For Alberta-based Enbridge Energy Partners—owners of the pipeline—no news is good news 

One has to wonder what stranglehold a foreign country possesses over federal and state lawmakers and regulators to basically halt any change in the status quo to an aging oil pipeline that moves 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day along the bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac.  This is where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron crash into each other forming the heart of the Great Lakes.

Oddly enough, the “America First” mantra espoused by President Trump doesn’t square with Line #5.  Canada, not the United States or Michigan, continues to benefit the most by putting at risk the world’s second largest resource of fresh water (21% of the world’s surface fresh water as measured by volume).

The tipping point came in 2010 when Enbridge—the company responsible for Line #5—had one of the largest inland oil spills in North American history. No one should need to see any more to understand the magnitude of destruction submerged oil pipelines can cause.  During that pipeline rupture (Line 6B, near Marshall, MI), known cracks morphed into a 6-foot gash, then spilled over 840,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. The spill fouled more than 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River and prompted a four-year cleanup that cost more than $1 billion. Enbridge was fined $61 million as part of an overall $177-million settlement that required improvements to its pipeline networks.

One of the best analysis of the Straits pipeline situation came in an extensive 2012 whitepaper from The National Wildlife Foundation (NWF): Sunken hazard: aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes”. https://www.nwf.org/en/Educational-Resources/Scientific-Reports/2012/10-08-2012-Sunken-Hazard

The NWF has since identified numerous places along the underwater section of the pipeline where protective coating is missing.  Worse, for much of the history of the pipeline sections of the pipeline have not been properly supported on Lake Michigan’s lakebed despite routine pummeling by oscillating currents.  In fact, those supports were not replaced until video from a National Wildlife Federation dive inspection revealed they were lacking.

Recently, Enbridge itself confirmed that part of its outer protection coating was missing from sections of the pipeline, and revealed in October 2017 that it has known about missing sections of coating since 2014 but failed to report the easement violation to state officials.  An April 2017 National Wildlife Federation report revealed that the land-based sections of Line 5 have leaked at least 29 times since 1968, spilling over 1 million gallons of oil.

“We cannot risk a spill in the Straits, which a 2016 University of Michigan study estimates could put up to 700 miles of shoreline at risk depending on current and weather conditions—with up to 150 miles impacted in any one spill—risking a 17,000-square mile spill zone,” they wrote.

“Additionally, the pipeline has been operating without an adequate spill response plan, as required by the Clean Water Act. Due to this, the National Wildlife Federation sued the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in January 2017, challenging this illegal operation of the pipeline.”

In a rare moment, the Michigan Agency for Energy, Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources and the Michigan State Police expressed concerns last August about new information confirming there are gaps in the protective coating on a portion of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.  At least one of them was apparently caused during the installation of supportive pipe anchors.  In response to the findings, the state called for the immediate inspection of areas around every anchor on Line 5, a report to the DNR and DEQ of any findings from the inspections, a copy of the video of the recent work performed on the pipeline, and repair within 30 days of any damage to the pipeline’s coating.

Other than those responses and empty threats to shut down the Straits portion from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schutte, not much has happened. 

U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters have submitted federal legislative proposals. Expect the same no action reaction received in 2014, when Stabenow submitted a letter with U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Dick Durbin to Cynthia Quarterman — Obama’s head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA. They expressed concerns about the age of the pipeline and said the potential risk demanded strict scrutiny, citing the 2010 rupture in Marshall along Enbridge’s Line 6B.  Her response offered little reassurance.

In addition to the Wildlife Federation and elected leaders, many Michigan non-profit environmental groups have banded together under the umbrella of “Oil and Water Don’t Mix, to draw attention and call for the decommissioning of Pipeline #5 under the Straits.  Most vocal of the consortium have been Executive Director Liz Kirkwood and Michigan environmental lawyer Jim Olson, founder of For Love of our Water (FLOW). Most recently joining them is their senior advisor, Dave Dempsey, who served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. 

Earlier, CMU Political Science Professor Jim Hill and this writer, as a former CMU political science graduate student, tried to get the governor to address this issue.

 “We have written papers and articles, spoken on public radio, made a presentation before the governor’s pipeline task force with other CMU students who worked on researching the issue, and sent numerous messages to the AG about this issue,” Hill, an environmental lawyer, said when enlisting help from the NWF.  The CMU group proposed Enbridge fund an escrow account to be used to fund both the risk and the study of alternatives. Control of the money and selection of the contractor lies solely with the State.

“The task force did accept our recommendation for a study, but that study, as you know, ended up being tossed just before its submission.” 

In September, Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board authorized a panel of academic experts from Michigan’s universities, led by Dr. Guy Meadows of Michigan Technological University, to resume the risk analysis.  The State last year terminated its contract with Det Norske Veritas (U.S.A.) Inc., which was performing a risk analysis on the pipeline, due to a conflict of interest that arose with a DNV GL employee. Therefore, no risk analysis is being offered for public comment today. The State is exploring its options for gaining the necessary information and no decisions have been made at this time regarding how to proceed with a risk analysis.

“This is a positive step in getting the state the actionable information it needs to decommission Line 5,” said Mike Shriberg, Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, and a member of the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board when the academic study was approved. “Engaging top academic minds will ensure that Michigan’s residents and resources will be prioritized.”

Shriberg continued, “We’re with environmental groups about this issue.  We also saw a ballot proposal as a possible answer, but the initiative proposal failed to gather sufficient signatures. It is destined to be a backburner political issue in the 2018 election unless an important statewide organization presses the issue in Lansing.”

He said NWF members will be advancing a policy resolution forward on Line 5 at its upcoming annual meeting in June.  “I think from a political standpoint things are actually more favorable than most would believe with this caveat:  Expect nothing from the current administration except disappointment. The two main gubernatorial contenders, Gretchen Whitmer and Bill Schuette, will play Line 5 up in the campaign.  Schuette has actually done a good job of playing to the environmental crowd with Line 5 and some other things like Asian carp.” 

Mike Shriberg said he expects Schutte to maximize a potential announcement about Line 5 at Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinaw Conference in May.  “I think he is willing to propose shutting down Line 5, but he won’t play that card until he can maximize the political benefit,” he said.  On the other side of the coin, Whitmer would shut it down in a second and doesn’t bear any risk in making that point.  The only pressure she will be under is to get out there first and deflate any opportunity that Schuette has to get a win on it. 

“From my point of view, the quickest way to shut the whole thing down is to determine whether there is something about the pipeline the tribes can sue on,” Shriberg added.  “Then, you get the US Department of Justice intervening on behalf of the tribes.”

The U.S. Coast Guard, which has gone on record stating that it couldn’t stop an underwater oil pipeline leak in the winter, says five vessels were stranded by ice in the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas.  The Coast Guard announced in January it sent the cutter Biscayne Bay to assist the vessels on the waterway that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in the Great Lakes.  Thick ice has been a challenge as result of record breaking cold temperatures throughout this winter.

Problems with washed-away pipeline supports have continued. Enbridge in July 2016 requested permission from the state to install 22 additional supports on Line 5, including four required to bring the pipes back into compliance with the 75-foot support-spacing requirements. State officials in October 2016 approved installing the four supports but rejected installation of the other 18. The Governor’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board-commissioned study might impact the future of the Straits pipeline.

The report analyzes possible alternatives to Enbridge Energy Partners, L.P.’s Line 5 below the Straits of Mackinac. The report can be found at the Michigan Petroleum Pipelines website.  While the report was prepared independently by Dynamic Risk for the State of Michigan, the Commission says the work and judgment are the views of the contractor and not those of the State.

At this point, it appears that likely gubernatorial candidate and former pipeline task force co-chair Bill Schuette, needs to call loudly for the decommissioning of the line as he did earlier. Many are doubtful this will result in any immediate action.  Rather, they see it as political posturing.

The best strategy appears to be to secure a timetable and commitment from Michigan legislators, attorneys general and gubernatorial candidates via petitions, ballot initiative, or social media campaign to force their hand.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

Ken Winter

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

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