Schuette: Days numbered for Mackinac straits' pipelines
Lansing — Michigan officials said something Tuesday that state environmental groups wanted to hear: The days of letting two controversial oil pipelines operate under the Straits of Mackinac are numbered.
But officials offered no immediate timeline or plan for shutting them down.
Attorney General Bill Schuette said Tuesday that, in today's world, the state would not likely permit the construction of two pipelines running underwater through such a sensitive area. Yet a task force he formed last year along with Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant issued recommendations Tuesday that stopped short of calling for the lines to stop operating.
Task force members instead recommended barring heavy crude from being transported through the pipelines, owned by Alberta-based Enbridge Energy and dubbed Line 5. It also called for independent analyses of the lines' risk, financial assurances from the company about its insurance coverage and possible alternative routes for the lines.
"Michigan is safer," Schuette said. "Michigan is safer now because of these recommendations. Number one is we are banning the transportation of heavy crude."
But it's unclear how much of a threat heavy crude oil was for the Mackinac pipelines. Following the release of the task force recommendations, an Enbridge official said the company had told Michigan officials it had no plans to use the underwater lines for that purpose.
"Line 5 carries light crude oil and natural gas liquids ...," the company wrote to the state on Feb. 10. "There have never been any prior, current or future plans to move heavy crudes through Line 5."
More than 500,000 barrels a day of other types of oil and liquid petroleum flow through the lines. In its presentations to the task force, Enbridge described Line 5 as being in "excellent" shape and posing minimal risk of a leak or rupture. The company has argued the lines can function safely indefinitely.
Task force members were not persuaded, writing that the company has failed to disclose safety test results or methods, as well as take into account risk factors such as the impact on the lines' integrity from invasive species like quagga and zebra mussels.
Both Wyant and Schuette were quick to highlight what shutting down Line 5 might mean for the rest of Michigan. Shipping 540,000 gallons of oil daily via other means would result in the use of 688 more railroad tanker cars or 2,512 semi tanker trucks.
The task force's measures are designed to address what Schuette and Wyant jointly described as "the most acute potential threat" to the Great Lakes. And Schuette called the recommendations "aggressive" and "tough."
The two pipelines have come under increased scrutiny by environmentalists in the wake of the 2010 oil spill near Marshall. That underground line, also operated by Enbridge, sent 840,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.
"These recommendations would minimize the short-term risks and give the state necessary information to evaluate the risks to the Straits from the pipelines, and to evaluate alternatives to the existing policies," Schuette and Wyant said in a letter accompanying the report.
Enbridge issued a statement that seemingly welcomed the task force's recommendations. The company said it would study the report and continue to work with the state on the issues.
"The Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task force has provided an opportunity for pipeline operators in Michigan to work with the state to address key issues and questions from Michigan residents, including those on pipeline safety, reliability and maintenance programs," the statement read. "It is important that the people who live, work and recreate near pipelines know that the pipeline is operated safely, particularly in high consequence areas such as the Straits of Mackinac."
Several conservation groups have called for the two pipelines to be shut down. And early responses from some of those groups were critical.
"If you believe these existing pipelines pose an immediate threat to the Great Lakes — and we do — the task force recommendations amount to a rearranging of deck chairs on Michigan's Titanic of oil pipelines, only worse: the threat of Enbridge's pipelines through the Straits are there for all to see," said David Holtz, chairman of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. "What is needed, and needed now, is to shut down Line 5."
Other groups embraced more of the task force's 60-page report.
"This report sets the stage to stop the flow of oil through the Straits of Mackinac, thereby protecting our communities, fish, wildlife and Great Lakes," stated Mike Shriberg, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Center, in a press release. "It's now up to Michigan's public officials to act with urgency to implement these recommendations. Delay only further jeopardizes our environment and economy. It's time to stop playing Russian roulette with the Great Lakes."
The company emphasized Tuesday that it considers the safe and reliable operation of the pipelines "a core principle."
"Enbridge is committed to the safe operation of all its pipelines including Line 5 across the Straits of Mackinac, and to timely and safe delivery of the petroleum products – light crude oil and natural gas liquids, such as propane – on which the residents of Michigan depend," the company said.
It is clear that Michigan has not gotten all of the information it wants from Enbridge. During the task force's information gathering, a Central Michigan University professor told members where data are lacking, including full environmental and economic costs of a worst-case spill scenario.
That information could be used to compel the company to carry adequate insurance to deal with a major spill. Under the 1953 easement granted by the state to allow the construction and operation of the pipelines at Mackinac, Enbridge is required to carry only $1 million.
Eight months ago, an Enbridge official said carrying more than $700 million in aggregate environmental damage insurance would not be cost effective. Earlier this year, the company estimated that cleanup and penalty costs for the Kalamazoo River spill could reach $1 billion.
"It needs to be brought into the 21st century, so we're going to require full and complete ... liability coverage," Schuette said.
Task force members also evaluated the state's oil transportation system statewide. Recommendations for Michigan's pipeline system include:
■■Coordination of pipeline mapping between state agencies.
■Collaboration between state agencies on emergency planning and spill response.
■Regular consultation between the state and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
■Consider legislation requiring state oversight of spill response plans, improved spill reporting and stiffer civil penalties.
■Consider a state-run Hazardous Liquids Pipeline Safety Program.
■Legislation or rule-making to govern new pipeline siting.
■Consider the creation of an Advisory Committee on Pipeline Safety.