Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Lake Michigan. Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Great Lakes are a critical natural resource in Michigan—and they are currently threatened by an aging oil pipeline that has the potential to destroy the regional ecosystem and economy. It is essential that the Michigan State Legislature take action to resolve pipeline issues in emergency preparedness, structural safety, and communication.

The Great Lakes region is the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world, containing 3,500 species of plants and animals and 95% of the country’s freshwater supply.[i] In addition to resources, there are more than 1.5 million jobs directly connected to the lakes, and over $16 billion is spent every year on boating in the Great Lakes alone.[ii]

The Enbridge Pipeline 5 has been in place since 1953, and runs from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario, transporting up to 540,000 barrels of crude oil and natural gas liquids per day.[iii] The pipeline runs over land but travels underwater for 4.5 miles through the Straits of Mackinac, the channel that connects Lakes Michigan and Huron between the two peninsulas.[iv] [v]During the underwater crossing, the 30 inch-diameter pipeline splits into two 20 inch-diameter pipelines that travel parallel to one another, exposed underwater.[vi]

The pipeline carries enough fuel to meet 65% of the propane demand in the Upper Peninsula and 55% of the overall propane needs for the state of Michigan, powering industry and businesses as well as heating homes.[vii] The company conducts a visual inspection of the exterior of the pipeline every 2 years and the interior every 5 years using technology that allows visualization of the interior of the pipeline similar to a medical MRI.[viii] Enbridge’s website states that the pipeline has never leaked during 65 years of operation.[ix] Despite the safety record, the last full-scale emergency exercise in the Straits was in September 2015—two and a half years ago.[x] Although this appears to be the industry standard for full-scale drills, in an emergency today, there could be new staff untrained in the large-scale procedures and coordination between agencies, putting the Great Lakes at risk.

In 2014, part of the pipe’s coating under the Straits was damaged during routine work and Enbridge failed to disclose this information to the government until August 2017 because “they did not deem it a safety issue.”[xi] However, these coating gaps expose bare metal to lake water, and pose a serious liability as these exposed areas can cause oil leaks.[xii] The company initially stated in February 2017 that there were no coating issues, but in September 2017 the company “confirmed it had identified three areas of the pipeline with a combined eight coating gaps”.[xiii]

As a result of this, in December 2017 the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board voted 5-1 with 7 abstentions (several abstaining representatives claimed they did not have time to read the resolution) to urge Governor Snyder to shut down the pipeline until the sections can be repaired.[xiv] However, in late January 2018, Governor Snyder rejected the proposal, citing concerns about an energy crisis and lack of a risk of imminent failure.[xv]

The exposed vulnerabilities of the pipe and the unknown conditions of the rest of the line may unnecessarily put the entire region at risk. In my opinion, Enbridge and the Michigan state government are not taking responsibility to protect citizens from potential spills. As demonstrated by its failure to reveal coating issues until three years later, Enbridge’s self-inspections for safety appears to create a conflict of interest when disclosing vulnerabilities within the pipeline that cause further risk exposure. The ineffective communication coupled with an apparent lack of emergency drills in the pipeline industry makes it appear that the state and Enbridge may not be fully equipped to handle an oil leak. Governor Snyder’s reluctance to shut down the pipeline or mandate immediate repair action fails to consider the environmental and economic importance of keeping the Great Lakes oil-free in favor of keeping energy prices low[xvi]. It is critical that the Michigan State Government take immediate action to independently verify the safety of the pipeline and shut it down until it can be completely inspected and repaired. The State Legislature has a responsibility to work towards a suitable alternative to an aging pipeline that could lead to irreparable environmental and economic damage in the Great Lakes.

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[i] NOAA. “Great Lakes Region.” Great Lakes Region RSS, NOAA, 2018, www.regions.noaa.gov/great-lakes/index.php/regional-statistics/.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “About Line 5.” Enbridge Inc., 2018, www.enbridge.com/projects-and-infrastructure/public-awareness/line-5-michigan/about-line-5.

[iv] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Straits of Mackinac.” Encylopaedia Britannic 12 Feb. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Straits-of-Mackinac.a,

[v] “About Line 5.” Enbridge Inc., 2018, www.enbridge.com/projects-and-infrastructure/public-awareness/line-5-michigan/about-line-5.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] “Line 5 Inspections.” Enbridge Inc., 2018, www.enbridge.com/projects-and-infrastructure/public-awareness/line-5-michigan/safeguarding-the-great-lakes/inspections.

[ix] “About Line 5.” Enbridge Inc., 2018, www.enbridge.com/projects-and-infrastructure/public-awareness/line-5-michigan/about-line-5.

[x] “Line 5 Straits Emergency Response Exercise.” Enbridge Inc., 2018, www.enbridge.com/projects-and-infrastructure/public-awareness/line-5-michigan/response-exercise.

[xi] Gerstein, Michael, and Jonathon Oosting. “Enbridge: Pipeline Had Coating Gaps for Years.” The Detroit News, 27 Oct. 2017, www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2017/10/27/enbridge/107065856/.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Gerstein, Michael. “State Pipeline Panel to Snyder: Halt Line 5 for Now.” The Detroit News, 11 Dec. 2017, www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2017/12/11/panel-snyder-shut-enbridge-pipeline/108521372/.

[xv] Carmody, Steve. “Gov. Snyder Rejects Panel Recommendation to Temporarily Shut down Line 5.” Michigan Radio, 29 Jan. 2018, michiganradio.org/post/gov-snyder-rejects-panel-recommendation-temporarily-shut-down-line-5.

[xvi] Ibid.

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