Oil spill study misses the mark

Brad Shamla

A recent study sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation has left the wrong impression on what could happen on our Great Lakes.

This study, conducted by the University of Michigan on behalf of the NWF, used a computer model to predict the environmental impact of a worst-case oil spill by Line 5 in the Great Lakes. If a release were to happen, this type of study — conducted correctly — could help determine the path of light oil in the complex currents around the Straits of Mackinac.

Unfortunately, the NWF-sponsored study is flawed. Here’s why. When you build a computer model to predict the environmental outcome of a hypothetical underwater pipeline oil release, it is essential to get the original inputs right.

One such problem is the amount released into the environment. The NWF-sponsored study assumed a volume that is up to five times higher than the maximum possible under the current configuration of Line 5. In the event of a pipeline failure, shut-off valves on either side of the Straits of Mackinac would automatically activate. The flow into the parallel lines would be shut down within three minutes of a detected drop in pressure, and trained responders would take action.

The study didn’t take these important safeguards into account. When you overestimate the amount of oil in the environment, you exaggerate the overall impact. Next, the study allowed the spill model to run for days, weeks and into months, assuming no oil response or recovery by Enbridge or any of the other response agencies in the region. This, too, misses the mark.

Pipeline companies are required by law to have emergency procedures and equipment in place that will allow them to effectively respond to an incident, even if the likelihood of a release is remote. In reality, Enbridge cleanup and containment equipment would be activated immediately following a release and oil recovery would commence quickly.

Enbridge regularly tests its emergency response plans for the Straits of Mackinac with local, state and federal response agencies — including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency. The most recent exercise took place in September and included, in addition to the federal agencies listed above, local emergency management officials, tribal representatives and state agencies.

Further, the study fails to consider a range of factors that determine what happens to oil released into the water. These processes are critical to predicting the outcome of a release. In short, while the NWF-sponsored study may do a good job of tracking water molecules in the Great Lakes, it fails to consider how light oil molecules behave in water.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance we place on keeping the Straits safe while delivering the energy Michigan depends on every day. We understand how important the Straits and Great Lakes are to Michigan residents.

Brad Shamla is vice president

of U.S. operations at Enbridge.