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Howes: Enbridge Line 5 saga imperils Michigan business

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Michigan business should pay closer attention to Enbridge Energy Partners LP’s rolling disclosures about missing coating on its Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac.

The corrosion represents far more than an environmental threat to the Great Lakes state, arguably the chief custodian of 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. A rupture at the heads of lakes Huron and Michigan could have major implications for automakers and utilities, health care companies and airlines, agriculture and “Pure Michigan” tourism.

“The state’s business community needs to get serious about the risk this poses to them — and they simply haven’t,” Patrick Anderson, CEO of the East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group, said in an interview Wednesday. “Many of our largest businesses face risks they can’t quantify.

“Enbridge is playing a long game. They’re operating legally, they’re paying taxes and employing workers ... and the state advisory board is being completely outplayed in this game. It’s time to take a new approach.”

He’s right. Declaring Enbridge’s “lack of transparency” to be “deeply concerning,” as Gov. Rick Snyder said this week, is necessary. But sufficient? Hardly, which is why the governor added that he “is no longer satisfied with the operational activities and public information tactics that have become status quo for Enbridge.”

The silence from Michigan business is deafening. The fresh water surrounding this peninsula occupied by nearly 10 million people is a precious resource. Fouling it, however unintentionally, would be the kind of unforced error state officials — and the business community — should push harder, and more publicly, to avoid.

Has everyone already forgotten the costs associated with the lead-tainted water in Flint? The foul water, the children sickened, the deaths attributed to Legionnaire’s disease, the congressional hearings, the damage to business and property values, the political cost at City Hall, in Lansing and in the last presidential campaign.

A failure would be another embarrassment for Michigan, striking another serious reputational blow to a state barely beginning to repair the largely self-inflicted damage of the Flint water crisis. You’d think Lansing would understand clearly this multifaceted threat to Michigan’s economy, its environment and its hard-won rebound from the “Lost Decade.”

Instead, its bureaucrats issue statements unintentionally evoking Captain Renault in “Casablanca”: They’re “shocked, shocked” that Enbridge appears to be dribbling out the facts in a way that would make the Trump administration proud.

What would you expect from a Canadian-owned company that isn’t a typically regulated utility? It isn’t necessarily as sensitive to political grandstanding and media flailing as one of Michigan’s own. Meanwhile, the product flows, customers are served, Enbridge gets paid and any reckoning is deferred.

Until something goes wrong — if, in fact, something does. Michigan’s economic revival is showing increasing signs of sustainability, provided it’s not imperiled by an Enbridge line failure whose impact likely would cascade to some of the state’s most important industries, their employees and its coastal communities.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, angling for the Republican nomination to succeed Snyder, already has called for a timeline to close the existing pipeline and replace it with a modern equivalent. Enbridge’s dissembling this week is likely to gain the AG some key allies — and it should.

Company officials say Enbridge should be more “transparent” with the state, presumably because their rolling disclosures are too egregious to deny. They said they “remain confident in the continued safe operation of Line 5” — despite previous assurances the missing coating was limited to comparatively tiny areas on the pipeline first laid in 1953, four years before the “Mighty Mac” bridge opened to traffic.

Turns out the coating gaps weren’t limited to tiny areas; they’ve multiplied, a fact Enbridge engineers probably knew long before the company told Michigan officials as much this week. Trust-inducing it’s not in what could become a higher-stakes standoff than it already is.

The state and Enbridge cannot afford to make a mistake, because two things remain true: The environment matters, and oil and natural gas power the economy worldwide. And fossil fuels are the lifeblood of many of the state’s largest employers, starting with the automakers and their sprawling supply base.

A ranking Enbridge executive earlier this week said the company is “confident in the continued safe operation of Line 5.” Saying so is not the same thing as proving it, which the state and its business leaders should demand — for all of us.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN .