Howes: Line 5 deal with state won’t quiet critics, yet

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder’s “binding agreement” with the Canadian owners of the Line 5 pipeline isn’t likely to quiet demands to “shut it down.”

Or to stop efforts to put a ballot question before voters next November designed to accomplish the same thing. That prospect, with potentially broad implications for Michigan business and the state economy, is far more susceptible to emotion and demagoguery loosely moored to cold facts and hard engineering.

But the agreement detailed Monday by the governor is a necessary step in the right direction — provided tunneling a portion under the St. Clair River and a study of laying the pipeline in a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac actually yield results.

There are more reasons to be skeptical than cautiously optimistic. Credit Enbridge Energy Partners LP’s demonstrated record of obfuscation and rolling disclosure, none of which is negated by yet more company promises to “do what it takes to rebuild trust.”

Good luck with that. In the pantheon of corporate villains, few would outmatch energy companies with a record of spills (Talmadge Creek, circa 2010), maintenance lapses (Straits of Mackinac) and selective disclosures to government regulators.

Enbridge’s agreement to tunnel under the St. Clair River, and study tunneling under the straits, too, signify corporate realization that removing their pipeline from direct contact with Great Lakes water is becoming the price for running a contemporary energy business across public waterways.

Line 5 carries nearly 22.7 million gallons of petroleum products daily, according to figures cited by the state. It supplies more than 60 percent of the propane requirements for the Upper Peninsula, and 88 percent of the requirements statewide. And the pipeline intersects rivers and streams at 245 separate points.

Idling operation of the pipeline under the straits “during periods of sustained adverse weather conditions, because those conditions do not allow effective response to potential oil spills,” appears to implicitly acknowledge heightened risk of an accident.

“A move to shut down the pipeline during bad weather is an admission of risk,” Jessica Fujan, Midwest region director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “If Line 5 is too vulnerable to use during storms, it’s too vulnerable to be entrusted with the safety of our Great Lakes. ... Line 5 must be shut down permanently.”

Absent catastrophic failure, that’s less likely than a concerted effort by Lansing to impose accountability and increased transparency on Enbridge. With his “binding agreement,” Snyder is moving to protect a legacy partially tarnished by the Flint Water Crisis — and avert a potential economic calamity.

Follow-through will be critical. Michigan’s economic rebound, powered by revitalization across many sectors, would be hobbled by an oil spill into the heart of 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. It would imperil drinking water sources for tens of millions throughout the Great Lakes states.

And the hit to Michigan’s image? Meaningfully damaging for a state whose stewardship of indigenous water is too often undercut by bureaucracy, regulatory indifference and insufficient skepticism. Snyder’s agreement with Enbridge is an attempt to revise that narrative.

It’s also an effort to look and sound tougher. The state is “requiring Enbridge” to act, not suggesting that it tunnel under the St. Clair River or employ new technology to monitor pipeline integrity under the straits. The new agreement does not represent the state’s final decision on Line 5 even as it imposes costly new requirements to operate in and around the Great Lakes.

Environmentalists will remain dissatisfied, because that’s what they do. Political cynics will remain unimpressed, as will Snyder critics predisposed to believing the worst of him irrespective of the details. Energy apologists will lament deeper intrusion by the state.

Too bad. Michigan’s move to tighten its control of Enbridge is a direct reaction to two complementary realities: first, the chronic lack of transparency from the company operating a pipeline that is older than the Mackinac Bridge. And, second, a general public that is far less forgiving of corporate malfeasance, especially when it impacts the environment.

The future of Line 5 is going nowhere fast. It will weigh on Snyder’s final year in office, figure in next year’s race to replace him and weigh on Enbridge’s capital spending plans — chiefly because it’s a reality that must be managed.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.