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Schuette: Time to schedule Mackinac pipeline shutdown

Jonathan Oosting and Leonard N. Fleming, The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Thursday called for the development of a “specific and definite timetable” to close Enbridge Energy Inc.’s Line 5 dual pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac.

Schuette’s comments came as his office, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Natural Resources and Agency for Energy released a long-awaited Line 5 alternatives assessment conducted by an independent contractor.

The 337-page report states the 64-year-old Line 5 could operate indefinitely, but Schuette said he “strongly” disagreed. One viable alternative, he said, would be to construct a tunnel under the straits that could serve a similar function but allow for continuous visual inspection while creating infrastructure and construction jobs.

“The safety and security of our Great Lakes is etched in the DNA of every Michigan resident, and the final decision on Line 5 needs to include a discussion with those that rely on propane for heating their homes, and depend on the pipeline for employment,” Schuette said in a statement. “One thing is certain: The next steps we take should be for the long-term protection of the Great Lakes.”

Schuette’s new push for a shutdown timeline comes nearly two years after he said the pipelines’ “days are numbered.” A task force he co-chaired in 2015 recommended independent pipeline studies, including the one released Thursday, but stopped short of calling for closure.

In a conference call with reporters before the report’s release, Enbridge officials said Line 5 is in “outstanding condition” because of the firm’s “rigorous maintenance.” The company noted that recent hydro tests found the pipelines to be “fit for service.”

“Enbridge’s maintenance schedule on Line 5 exceeds federal requirements to meet our goal of protecting Michigan’s environment,” said John Gauderman, the director of operations in the Chicago office. “We intend to keep it that way.”

Several environmental groups greeted Thursday’s report by repeating their call for immediately closing Line 5, which they argue the state has the legal authority to do because it controls easements beneath the straits.

“Every day the pipeline is pumping oil under the Straits of Mackinac is another day risking a catastrophic oil spill that would devastate the Great Lakes, our economy and our way of life,” said David Holtz, chairman of Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.

The League of Conservation Voters called Schuette’s recommendation of a closure timeline “hollow posturing,” and urged decisive action by the state.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce also decried political sloganeering, and argued pipelines remain an important way to safely transport energy resources.

“ ‘Shut Down Line 5’ may be a clever bumper sticker for environmental extremists and a handy slogan for politicians, but it ignores the facts,” said Chamber CEO Rich Studley. “To keep Michigan moving forward, environmental policy and important regulatory decisions must continue to be based on sound science, not bumper stickers or emotional political appeals.”

Pipeline conditions analyzed

The 645-mile Line 5 was built in 1953 and runs from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario. It transports up to 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids.

Earlier this year, critics worried about the coating on Line 5 as it splits into two 20-inch pipelines when traveling about 4.5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac 250 feet under water. But the analysis by Calgary-based Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems Inc. found that corrosion does not pose a significant threat of causing a rupture if “Enbridge maintains its current integrity management practices.”

The report found tiny but scattered “deformations” in the pipelines that weren’t deemed to pose safety problems.

The firm determined several alternatives to the existing straits pipeline were feasible but did not recommend a course of action.

“Today’s report further confirms that pipelines are among the safest and most efficient ways to transport crude oil,” Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan Executive Director Peter Langley said.

But Kate Madigan, the north Michigan representative for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the report wasn’t a fair analysis because it “makes some assumptions that are really favorable to Enbridge and to new oil infrastructure and downplays the risks to the Straits.”

Dynamic Risk did warn about the looming threat of a cargo ship accidentally dropping anchor, dragging it while underway and hooking a pipeline. This would be a problem in the busy traffic corridor of the shallow straits, especially since anchor drops and drags are seeing “an increase in frequency,” the firm said.

Alternatives outlined

Dynamic Risk looked at the existing straits crossing, remote sites for an alternative pipeline, alternatives near the straits and abandoning Line 5.

The firm concluded the remote alternatives would prove more costly than options near the straits, including the construction of a 30-inch diameter trench crossing and a 30-inch diameter tunnel crossing.

The tunnel crossing would cost about $153 million, but operating costs would be about the same as the current pipeline and result in “negligible risk” to the economy and environment, according to the report. The trench approach would cost $30 million, it found.

Building a tunnel or trench would be projected to generate 400-1,800 near-term jobs.

Abandoning Line 5 would cost $200 million, according to the report, and would result in propane prices increasing 10 cents a gallon to 35 cents a gallon in the Upper Peninsula. The reduced oil supply would prompt a 2-cents-a-gallon increase in gasoline prices around the state, Dynamic Risk estimated.

But the task of removing the 645 miles of pipeline would generate 2,000 short-term jobs, according to the report.

Schuette on Thursday also proposed creation of the Michigan Pipeline Authority, which he said could be patterned after the Mackinac Bridge Authority. The potential authority, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, would work toward the decommissioning of Line 5 and provide recommendations to the Federal Pipeline Safety Authority.

Pending closure of Line 5, Schuette said the Michigan Legislature should pass a law to prohibit heavy crude oil and tar sands from being transported through the Straits of Mackinac. Both are already prohibited under an agreement between the state and Enbridge, which transports light crude, light synthetic crude and natural gas liquids through the pipeline.

Schuette did not propose a timeline himself, but he said any closure plan should be based on science, technology and common sense.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said she agrees with Schuette, adding that the issue doesn’t need to be politicized but should focus on protecting the Great Lakes and the environment. She and Rep. David Trott, R-Birmingham, introduced legislation to shut Line 5 if a comprehensive study found the line posed a significant safety risk.

“The report is a good first step into determining alternative options for Line 5,” Dingell said.

Public meetings

The state has scheduled four public information sessions at which residents can react to the report.

The first is a July 6 meeting at Holt High School where Dynamic Risk representatives will explain the company’s analysis and answer questions. The 5 p.m. session will be live-streamed.

The others are scheduled for:

■July 24, 8 a.m., Holt High School, 5885 Holt Road, Holt

■July 24, 6 p.m., Hagerty Center at Northwestern Michigan College, 715 East Front St., Traverse City

■July 25, 6 p.m., Little Bear East Arena, 275 Marquette St., St. Ignace