|Organizers are rallying at Bridge View Park in St. Ignace to warn that there’s a 60-year-old oil pipeline beneath the Straits, operated by the same company responsible for the Kalamazoo pipeline oil spill, and that it’s putting the Great Lakes ecosystem at serious risk.|
When Jeff Spoelstra takes the stage at Sunday’s “Oil & Water Don’t Mix” rally at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, he’ll have a simple message: Don’t let what happened to the Kalamazoo River happen to the Straits of Mackinac.
In 2010, Spoelstra, then the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council’s chief, watched in anguish as an oil pipeline few people knew of released approximately 1 million gallons of oil into the river. Three years and $800 million later, the cleanup continues, because the crude was tar sands oil, or dilbit, which sunk to the bottom of the river instead of floating on top. It lies in dirty, lifeless patches along 38 miles of river bottom.
Organizers are rallying at Bridge View Park in St. Ignace to warn that there’s a 60-year-old oil pipeline beneath the Straits operated by the same company operating the Kalamazoo pipeline, and that it’s putting the Great Lakes ecosystem at serious risk.
The organizers, including the National Wildlife Federation, TC350, the Michigan Environmental Council, and the Michigan Land Use Institute, are promoting an online petition urging Governor Rick Snyder to demand a federal ban on sending dilbit beneath the Straits—or anywhere near the Great Lakes—as well as replacing the aging structure with the safest-possible pipeline technology.
The Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge, the world’s largest dilbit transporter, operates both lines. According to a 2012 National Wildlife Federation report, Importing Disaster: The Anatomy of Enbridge’s Once and Future Oil Spills, the company had 804 pipeline leaks between 1999 and 2010. Those leaks released 6.7 million gallons of oil—about half the total released by the Exxon Valdez.
A subsequent NWF report, Sunken Hazard, revealed the existence of the Mackinac Line, which moves more than 20 million gallons of fossil liquids a day beneath the Straits. The report found that cleaning up conventional crude leaked from that pipe would be very difficult in the Straits’ swift-moving cross currents, particularly during the winter.
But if the aging line leaked tar sands oil, the report said, effective cleanup could be impossible in any season, leaving much toxic goo stuck to Great Lakes bottomlands.
Enbridge says it has no plan to send dilbit beneath the Straits—but for market, not environmental, reasons. The Mackinac Line serves refineries in Sarnia, Ontario, and southeastern Michigan that have no need for dilbit, company spokesmen say.
But, while activists press for no-dilbit guarantees, Enbridge seems intent on maintaining its options. It insists that dilbit—the word is short for diluted bitumen—closely resembles conventional heavy oil and needs no special precautions.
Enbridge recently released two studies to back that claim. One says tar sands oil is no more corrosive to pipeline interiors than heavy oil. The other says dilbit floats on fresh water, like heavy crude. The company could use those studies to argue it doesn’t need new U.S. permits if Sarnia’s refineries develop a taste for dilbit.
Beth Wallace, a co-author of both NWF reports and a speaker at the rally, thinks Enbridge has plans for sending dilbit through the Mackinac Line.
“Enbridge is proposing a series of smaller pipeline projects, each as a stand-alone project for a specific local purpose,” Wallace and co-author Jeff Alexander wrote in Sunken Hazard. “But the company’s plan—which it has publicly announced—is to link all the small changes to create system-wide expansion that will allow the company to ship oil from the Alberta tar sand fields in western Canada all the way to Maine—much of it through the Straits of Mackinac Line.”
Hitting the Big Time
Now the company’s safety record and its refusal to permanently eschew dilbit at the Straits is moving the Mackinac Line toward the center of the fierce fight over climate change and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands from Alberta’s boreal forests to exporting refineries along the Gulf Coast.
TC350’s parent organization, 350.org, and its founder, Bill McKibben, are leading that charge, which involves tens of thousands of people and many organizations. If they stop Keystone, the pressure to use the Mackinac Line for dilbit might be immense.
That is why McKibben, who was arrested in front of the White House for his anti-Keystone efforts, will be onstage with Wallace and Spoelstra. He’ll warn against so-called “extreme energy extraction,” of which tar sands oil is the clearest example, and urge moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
He’ll point out that extracting, moving, and refining tar sands oil not only deeply scars vast swaths of primeval forests in remote Canada, it produces more planet-warming greenhouse gases than processing conventional oil.
Spoelstra, too, looks at the big picture. He wants all dilbit production to stop.
“Frankly, given what I’ve experienced here,” Spoelstra said by phone from Kalamazoo, where he’s now a watershed association board member, “I have much less faith in even our highest levels of pipeline technology. We have to go in the exact opposite direction. I’d much rather talk about the climate problem than discuss small improvements in pipeline technology.”
Enbridge, meanwhile, is replacing and expanding the line that dumped dilbit into the Kalamazoo River. That line, called 6B, sends dilbit to Chicago and Detroit refineries.
The condition of the Mackinac Line is not publicly known. Wallace said NWF filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Agency for that line’s maintenance records nearly two years ago—including videos of its inspection of the pipe’s exterior by a remote-controlled submersible.
PHMSA finally responded with some material last week, but NWF staff said the FOIA response lacked critical details from the inspection documents, including video and photo evidence showing the integrity of the line.
“I feel like the reason we are not getting the video is because the agency is bending over backwards for the company, not the public,” she said.
Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer insisted that the Mackinac Line is in excellent shape, that the company takes good care of it, and that replacing the old line is unnecessary.
He said Enbridge is replacing the Kalamazoo line with a bigger one because of problems engineers found in close inspections after the break, and because of growing demand for a wide variety of oils along its route.
He said there are no expansion plans for the Mackinac Line—other than a just-completed pumping upgrade to move oil more swiftly, which NWF opposed but which required no new permitting. He added Enbridge keeps close tabs on that line.
“The Great Lakes are the most important resource up there,” Springer said by phone from near Houston. “We operate and maintain and inspect and do response exercises in a way to make sure we are paying attention to the little details.”
He said the 30-inch Mackinac Line (Enbridge calls it Line 5) splits into two 20-inch lines beneath the Straights and uses three-quarter-inch, not quarter-inch steel, to provide an “extremely sturdy pipe fit for service in the water environment.
“We run internal and then remote external inspections, which help us look at the bottom of the pipe, to make sure there’s no undermining of its support,” he added.
Springer insisted dilbit usually behaves the same way crude does in water.
“We believe the big problem in Kalamazoo was that the river was at flood stage,” he said. “That is one of the reasons the oil tended to sink. We could not duplicate the sinking in water that was not filled with debris. Right now we don’t believe dilbit is any more hazardous than any other heavy oil.”
Springer pointed to a new, Congressionally mandated National Academy of Sciences study finding dilbit no more corrosive to pipeline interiors than heavy crude. Wallace discounts that, saying scientists used only industry data and did not directly test interactions between dilbit and steel under high pressures and temperatures.
Springer, who noted that his company is also investing in renewable energy projects in the western U.S., agreed that 804 leaks sounds like a lot, but said the company’s pipeline network is vast and moves huge amounts of oil and natural gas.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the product gets from Point A to Point B safely,” he said. “We are working on those last hundredths of a percent, and no leak is acceptable. Reportable leaks are five gallons or more, and a majority of these leaks are like that and occur on company property, at pump stations and at terminals. So that becomes fodder for ‘hundreds of leaks.’”
Springer also pointed to a company Web site, launched after the Kalamazoo spill, which tracks the company’s efforts to improve its practices.
What Does the Future Hold?
Enbridge’s assurances about expansions and safety don’t impress Wallace.
She said the company is trying to expand its dilbit capacity in bits and pieces, often claiming its work as “maintenance” to avoid permitting requirements that could slow it down or cost money.
In Sunken Hazard, she and Alexander wrote, “a company with Enbridge’s safety record cannot be allowed to expand without strict oversight and scrutiny. Otherwise, the risk of another serious spill is too great.”
And Wallace has a hard time with Enbridge’s claims of renewed commitment to safety. She writes in Sunken Hazard that, just 10 days before the Kalamazoo spill, an Enbridge official told a Congressional committee, “Our response time from our control center [in Edmonton, Alberta] can be almost instantaneous, and our large leaks are typically detected by our control center personnel.”
But news reports say it took Enbridge 17 hours to show up at the river, and did so only after Edmonton tried several times to restart the stalled pipeline and the company began receiving calls from locals who could see and smell the disaster.
As NWF noted, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the Kalamazoo spill “revealed that the pipeline had been damaged five years prior to the spill. The NTSB was scathing in its assessment of the company’s response, comparing Enbridge to the Keystone Kops…”
A news report in Tuesday’s edition of Inside Climate News could reinforce that impression. The online news service says state officials have cited Enbridge for failing to report a spill that occurred when it tested a section of the new Kalamazoo dilbit line it’s building. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is re-examining the firm’s reports on earlier tests of two other sections of the new line. The news service notes that failing to report spills is “important because the agency relies on pipeline operators…to inform officials when things go wrong.”
But Wallace says she’s feeling encouraged: “People are becoming aware, concerned, asking the right questions, taking actions… Now we have to make sure [regulators] are taking every possible step to protect the Great Lakes.”
Spoelstra added: “The fact that the [Mackinac] pipeline is already there just kills me. We can’t do that. It’s the wrong direction. I want people to come to a whole new way of thinking about how we power the things we need to power.”
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].