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Lessons to be Gleaned from Expert ‘Alternative Report’ to Line 5

July 18, 2017 | |

With the June 30 release of an “Alternatives Analysis” commissioned by the State of Michigan, momentum is growing to decommission the Line 5 oil pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. The conclusions of this analysis, and its popular and political impact in the weeks ahead, represent another crucial step in the march to shut down this catastrophy-waiting-to-happen in the heart of the Great Lakes.

The state’s public comment period is open until Aug. 4, and citizens concerned about Line 5 are encouraged to participate. Click here to comment. This Thursday at 5 p.m., I’ll take part in a FacebookLive conversation on Groundwork’s Facebook page and offer tips on how to comment and convince Michigan officials that the pipeline in the heart of the Great Lakes poses a risk we simply can’t tolerate.

Scroll down for my breakdown on the Alternative Analysis, what it tells us, and what’s missing. … But first, here’s an update on where we stand with respect to holding key elected officials accountable for Line 5.

In the summer of 2015, Attorney General Bill Schuette acknowledged that the State of Michigan — and specifically his office — has the authority to terminate a 1953 easement that allowed twin oil pipelines to operate on the bottomlands of the Great Lakes, and effectively decommission Line 5. At that time Schuette also said that the “days are numbered” for the pipes in the Straits of Mackinac, and that a pipeline would not be approved there today. But the Attorney General stopped short of taking action to shut down the pipeline, saying that further action could not be taken without an independent risk analysis and alternative analysis. The risk report commissioned by the State was scrapped last month because the consultants violated conflict of interest conditions requiring they not work for Enbridge while preparing the report.

In concert with the Alternative Analysis report release, Schuette made similar strong statements but again gave no indication of taking any action before the 2018 gubernatorial election. Schuette is considered a leading Republican candidate for governor, and appears to understand the importance of appearing strong on the Line 5 issue.  With the report’s release and growing public pressure for action, it will be difficult for him to continue to delay while campaigning for governor. See my previous Groundwork column about how Schuette should turn tough talk on Line 5 into real action.

What the Alternative Analysis Said

The Alternatives Analysis for the Straits Pipeline conducted by Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems, Inc. spans more than 1,000 pages with appendices, and introduces many new facts while also reviewing a lot of extant information. Reviews of the report are still emerging but this is an attempt to highlight some of the key early observations.

1) Independent, but embedded in oil industry

When they presented their report in Holt, Mich., on July 6, the consulting team took great pains to describe their ‘independent’ perspective and highlight that they did not ‘sugarcoat’ the risks of the pipeline. But the consultant’s deep ties to the oil industry appeared to seep through in several areas. This points to the absurdity of trying to find a qualified consultant that could analyze Enbridge that does not have deep ties to the company — one of North American’s largest oil pipeline companies.

2) Underestimate the Worst Case Spill Scenario and Impacts

The consultant’s estimates grossly underestimate the environmental and economic impact of an oil spill by minimizing the “worst case scenario”. The consultants used “industry standards” for likely spills that make assumptions that do not consider multiple failures of both operator and technology (shutoff valves).  The estimates of $100 – 200 million in economic impact pale in comparison to the real-world costs of Enbridge’s 2010 spill in the Kalamazoo River, whose damage and cleanup costs topped $1 billion. It is impossible to imagine how a “worst case” spill in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac — perhaps under ice cover — would not massively exceed the costs of a spill confined to a river channel.

3) Ignore Enbridge’s Recent Massive Capacity Expansion

Perhaps the most blatant oversight in the report was the wholesale dismissal of an alternative that considered using existing pipeline infrastructure as a justification for decommissioning Line 5. The consultants chose to ignore Enbridge’s “Eastern Access Initiative”, which has been a strategically quiet and segmented approach to increase capacity of existing pipelines heading to the East Coast of the United States. The initiative was done in two phases — the first in 2013 included doubling the capacity of Line 6b following its catastrophic rupture into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, and that same year also expanding the capacity of Line 5 by 50,000 barrels per day (bpd). In that one year, Enbridge increased capacity of its eastward pipelines by 310,000 (bpd).

That second phase was completed in 2016 by reversing a pipeline that previously brought Middle Eastern oil to refineries in Sarnia. With the reversal, Enbridge can now bring excess oil beyond refineries in Sarnia (Ontario), Detroit and Toledo to Montreal where it can supply the East Coast and load excess capacity onto tankers for global export. The consulting team chose to ignore this recent massive capacity expansion – and did not consider an alternative of decommissioning Line 5 and returning to 2012 capacity. The bottom line is that Enbridge is moving much more oil through the Great Lakes than this region needs or can use, making the decommission alternative very feasible.

4) Quantifying Probability of a Spill

The consultants stated that the probability of failure is most likely to come from external occurrences such as a ship’s anchor or strong currents in the Straits creating “vortex induced vibrations” that could shake the pipeline apart. That risk is nearly 1 in 60 over the next 35 years. That’s a real possibility, and far greater than the 0% risk that most residents are prepared to accept for their drinking water source and the basis for much of Michigan’s economy.

5) Propane to the U.P. Could be Easily Provided with a 4-inch Pipeline

Enbridge has raised concern about how the Upper Peninsula would get propane to rural residents to heat their homes this winter. The report considers transporting propane by trucks and rail cars, but does not quantify the cost of a far more obvious solution – constructing a simple 4-inch pipeline along the Line 5 easement corridor. This solution was mentioned in the July 6 meeting in Holt, and is only mentioned as an option in the appendix to the report.

6) Controversial Tunnel Option

The consultants described an option to build a tunnel more than 300 feet below the surface of the lake bed, which they described as a feasible solution. The problems with a tunnel option — beyond the engineering challenges of digging a five-mile tunnel in porous limestone rock — are both political and legal. It is unclear how far Michigan’s responsibility to protect the bottomlands of the Great Lakes extends below the lake bottom – but a tunnel would pose a legal challenge.

There is an important political lesson to be gleaned from the Engler administration. In 2001, calls for oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes led to a proposed “compromise” to allow slant drilling under the lakes. But there was a strong public outcry against any oil drilling under the lakes, which ultimately resulted in the GOP-led legislature passing a ban on slant drilling under the Great Lakes.

Attorney General Schuette latched onto the tunnel option as a possible compromise solution that would allow him to appear that he was protecting the Great Lakes and decommissioning the pipeline, while not antagonizing the fossil fuel and pipeline industry. Any permits for a tunnel would likely face a similar strong public backlash and an army of lawsuits in court.

Public Comment Period Open

Environmental groups, business leaders in the Great Lakes Business Network, and thousands of Michigan citizens are expected to offer public comment on this report, and the vast majority of comments will likely call to decommission Line 5 with no replacement. The Attorney General would be wise to heed this advice before a catastrophic spill happens on his watch.

About the Author

Jim Lively, Groundwork’s program director, has been a crucial leader in the campaign to shut down the Line 5 oil pipeline and protect the Great Lakes. Contact him at [email protected]

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