Ban heavy crude oil from Straits of Mackinac pipeline: Michigan officials

Straits of Mackinac pipeline run below waterway

Straits of Mackinac pipeline
Enbridge reported to the State of Michigan that it no plans to move heavy crude through the Straits of Mackinac pipeline.  Enbridge photo.

LANSING, Mich. – Heavy crude oil will be banned from the Straits of Mackinac pipeline that runs under a scenic waterway where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet, state officials said Tuesday, adding they also will require independent analyses of future alternatives to the pipes and worst-case consequences of a spill.

Only light crude presently moves through Line 5, two side-by-side pipelines below the 5-mile-wide Straits of Mackinac that transport nearly 23 million gallons of oil a day. It is run by Canada-based Enbridge Energy Partners, which told the state in February it has no plans to move heavy crude through the line built in 1953.

The Great Lakes would be at “greatest risk” from a spill of “diluted bitumen” oil from Canada’s tar sands region, according to Attorney General Bill Schuette and Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant, who led a yearlong task force studying pipeline issues. About 840,000 gallons of heavy crude spilled from another Enbridge pipeline into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

The task force issued 13 recommendations, four specific to the straits’ pipelines. They include requiring Enbridge to pay for a neutral analysis of the potential liability from a worst-case scenario Line 5 spill and ensuring the company has enough liability insurance to cover damages.

Another proposal would make Enbridge pay for an outside study of pipeline alternatives. Options to be explored include building new pipelines that do not cross open waters of the Great Lakes, replacing the existing pipelines, decommissioning them or sticking with the status quo.

Schuette, a Republican, said he thinks the pipelines’ days are “numbered.” But Line 5 also is useful, he said, because it lessens the need for tankers, trucks and rail cars to transport light oils and petroleum products.

Enbridge did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The report noted the company has emphasized differences in materials used in the straits pipelines and the failed Line 6B in southern Michigan, changes in company procedures and the number and types of inspections.

The task force said with “so much at stake,” neither the state nor public has enough information to independently evaluate Enbridge’s conclusions. The report found, for instance, that much of the pipelines are heavily encrusted with invasive species that hurt visibility, and that Enbridge, citing confidentiality, did not provide results of most inspections.

Many environmental groups that want the pipelines shut down had mixed reactions to the study.

The Sierra Club said while the recommendations might offer “eventual relief,” the Great Lakes and northern Michigan tourism remain “unacceptably vulnerable to a catastrophic pipeline rupture.” Popular with tourists, the straits area features the Mackinac Bridge linking Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas and a resort island.

The National Wildlife Federation heralded the report, saying it sets the stage for eventually removing the pipelines if Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration acts with urgency.

“We need immediate action focused on eliminating this threat, because no amount of preparation would be adequate to prevent utter disaster if Line 5 fails,” Michigan Environmental Council President Chris Kolb said.

The 20-inch pipes are part of Enbridge’s 1,900-mile Lakehead network, which originates in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The 645-mile-long segment known as Line 5 slices through northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before ducking beneath the Straits of Mackinac and winding up in Sarnia, Ontario.

The federal government is responsible for regulating the safety of petroleum pipelines. The task force, citing “gaps” in information from Enbridge, urged an evaluation of whether Michigan should take over regulation of intrastate pipelines. It also suggested statewide changes related to pipeline mapping, increasing fines, emergency response planning, better co-ordinating with federal officials and improved siting of new pipelines.

“It’s not just about the straits,” Wyant said. “We’ve got 2,800 miles of pipelines in the state of Michigan, that’s the equivalent of going (from) New York to Los Angeles.”

The Canadian Press