Pipelines and the Great Lakes: What’s the Problem?

The Michigan Land Use Institute wants it removed. The National Wildlife Federation and Mark Schauer, democratic candidate for governor, want it replaced. Yet, there’s nothing wrong with it. As Andy Griffith might say, “What it is, is a pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.”

Why all the alarm? In 2012, the National Wildlife Federation issued a report that called the twin pipes under the Straits a “looming threat.” This set off a public relations/fundraising chain reaction by similar activist groups that included press releases and editorials warning of the new danger, articles in fundraising newsletters, and, demands that the Governor, Congress, somebody – anybody – do something because the pipes could leak oil into the Great Lakes. It’s possible.

There is legitimate concern over the condition of the pipes since the company that owns them, Enbridge Energy Partners, Inc., had a pipe failure in 2010 in Marshall, Mich. The result: 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River. Four years later, the river is nearly back to its old self. The company took full responsibility for the failure, paid a $3.7 billion fine to the Department of Transportation, and is prepared to pay further fines, not to mention the costs of dredging/oil removal and restoring 35 miles of river bank. It is also purchasing dozens of homes in the affected area, paying other homeowners for damages, planting thousands of trees and native plants and creating new riverfront parks.

It’s not likely to happen again. It’s safe to assume that Enbridge officials want to avoid another environmental and public relations disaster, not to mention the incredible costs of clean up. The company has since taken steps to insure the integrity of other pipelines, including a $4 billion investment in a new underground pipeline monitoring system.

The Line 5 dual 30-inch pipes under the Straits have no seams, unlike the one that leaked into the Kalamazoo River. The underwater pipes have one-inch thick walls, substantially thicker than newer pipes. They’re rated at 1,700 pounds per square inch (PSI) pressure, but operate at about a third of that. If there was a pressure failure the pipes shut down automatically. They are inspected every two years, there is continuous monitoring and there are no signs of cracking or corrosion. There are numerous other safeguards in place, and the oil running through the pipes is light crude, not the sticky stuff that fouled the Kalamazoo River.

In late July, Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that Enbridge was in violation of the original 1953 easement that required supports under the pipeline every 75 feet. Right now supports are spaced every 54 feet, on average, but there are some gaps as long as 140 feet between the supports. Peer-reviewed engineering analysis by the University of Michigan and Columbia say extra supports aren’t necessary. Enbridge had applied for permits to add the extra supports two months before Schuette’s July announcement.

There’s nothing wrong with the 60-year old pipeline, so there’s no reason to replace or remove it. This logic would also have us removing or rebuilding the Mackinac Bridge. It’s almost as old as the pipeline, and hey, it was just seven years ago that the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. There was minimal damage to the environment, but 13 people actually died and hundreds were injured. And, who could forget the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge that collapsed within months of completion. It happened there. It could happen here.

It’s time to tone down the sky-is-falling rhetoric when it comes to energy. Like it or not, we need oil and gas to fuel our way of life. There will be an occasional accident. But if we have no risk tolerance, and close it all down, what’s the alternative? Energy production is much more efficient and environmentally friendly today than it was generations ago because the industry strove for improvement and excellence. Part of the credit goes to environmental groups and government agencies for demanding higher standards, and a lot of credit goes to the brilliant minds who figure out how to extract minerals from deep in the earth with minimal impact to the living environment.

If we start ripping out perfectly good pipelines and ban certain practices because of imperfection, then we might as well start tearing down the wind turbines that kill an estimated 440,000 birds and a near equal number of bats every year! Or the solar panel farms along a key bird migration path where birds are killed diving into the shiny panels, mistaking them for water, or have their wings singed by the heat.

Or we can accept the risks that come from creating energy needed to fuel our quality of life, and we can encourage constant innovation and improvement. Of course, we could always play it safe and live in tents in the woods and hunt and fish for our food, and stay warm with campfires. But, that could cause a forest fire…

Enbridge in Michigan

Employees and contractors: Approximately 250
Average salary: $82,000
Property taxes (2013): $14.4 million
Sales and use taxes (2013): $6.25 million
Income taxes (2013): $195, 785