Dire straits, on the Great Lakes pipeline

Ken Winter

President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Snyder come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but share one thing in common: Dodging an oil pipeline bullet before an election.

Now they each face a final decision on what to do.

For Obama, it is the Keystone XL oil pipeline. He delayed any decision until after the 2012 election, then again until after the 2014 election.

The Snyder administration also dodged a pre-election bullet after the 2010 rupture in Enbridge’s 6B pipeline dumped about a million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River near Marshall. Most people didn’t know there was an oil pipeline crossing the five-mile stretch between St. Ignace and Mackinac or between Port Huron and Sarnia.

Following continued public attention and protests, Snyder asked Department of Environmental Quality director Dan Wyant and Attorney General Bill Schuette last June to co-chair a multi-agency government task to take a close look at pipelines transporting petroleum products around the state. This tactic basically removed the issue from Snyder’s bid for a second term.

The task force is expected to report its findings to Snyder within the next few months after just wrapping up its hearings.

Former Department of Natural Resources commissioner Jim Hill, a Central Michigan University political science professor and lawyer, testified last month before the task force:

“We have a 60-plus-year-old set of petroleum pipelines lying under the Straits of Mackinac, which, if damaged or otherwise compromised, could create an environmental nightmare for the region. The question then arises: Should there be cause for concern since there have been no known leaks under the Straits for all of this time? The pipeline’s spill in Kalamazoo in 2010 involving a pipeline of the same age and owned by the same company is the canary in the mine that says the answer to that question is, ‘Yes.’ Recent pipeline petroleum spills and leaks just in the last month are further evidence that the possibility of a Straits spill must be taken seriously.

“If there were such a spill, could it be quickly and easily contained? Enbridge, the owner of the pipeline, says it could because of their sophisticated and state of the art detection and control systems, which I am sure they emphasized to you previously.

“However, Enbridge gave the same assurances to Congress not long before the Kalamazoo pipeline spill, which resulted in one of the worst inland oil spills in the nation’s history.”

Hill argues that maintaining the status quo to protect 20 percent of the world’s freshwater is not an option. He worries about human error, technology failure, and extreme weather conditions, complicated by the fact that a spill in the Straits could be significant and not quickly controlled. He points out that the U.S. Coast Guard says it does not have the capability to address a large-scale spill in the Straits area.

Testimony presented to the task force ranged from the commercial value of Michigan’s oil pipeline system and related jobs, to the potential environmental threat that petroleum pipelines — like those owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Energy — could pose to people, businesses, tourism, wildlife, land, water and air.

The stage is set for a potential environmental calamity unless something changes.

Ken Winter is the former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review.