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There’s way too much impassioned rhetoric that portrays oil and natural gas pipelines as threats to public safety – an environmental moralism that skirts the practical problems of how to reliably supply fuel to consumers and businesses in Michigan and throughout the country. Ongoing attacks on the oil and gas industry in the five months since dents were found in Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac – evidently caused by a ship’s anchor – raise questions about the motivation of critics who want to shut down underwater pipelines.

To be sure, pipelines must be safe. In Michigan, an improvement in pipeline operations and more diligent and frequent inspections would protect the Straits of Mackinac. Safeguarding the public and the environment must be the top priority. As more and more pipeline companies are learning, a near-perfect safety record is not good enough. Damage to Enbridge’s Line 5 underscores the need to meet the industry’s goal of zero incidents.

This means that better ways need to be found to make pipelines safer, rather than forgo the use of pipelines altogether. One approach would be to place greater emphasis on automation through the deployment of gadgets known as “smart pigs” to scan the pipeline wall to identify corrosion, dents, or cracks so that repairs are done promptly. This would spur industry to place greater emphasis and resources on research and development, including the use of robots and drones that can live on the bay floor and inspect pipelines and underwater equipment. Interestingly, in-line inspection detection has reduced corrosion-caused incidents by almost 80 percent over the past 15 years, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

While companies have been striving for improvement – and there is evidence that underwater pipelines are being maintained more safely than in the past, none of the changes are easy or cheap. For instance, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires interstate oil pipeline operators to draft plans to address a worst-case discharge of oil or other hazardous liquids which are reviewed and subject to approval by PHMSA. This requires the right combination of prevention, mitigation and response strategies that must be tailored to specific onshore and offshore operations. If a plan does not meet the agency’s requirements, PHMSA will require changes to be submitted and will review the plan again for compliance.  

As a state with one of the most robust pipeline systems, Michigan deserves credit for helping to ensure reliable delivery of oil and natural gas to consumers where and when it is needed. Enbridge’s Line 5 in particular provides a vital link to propane and other energy supplies in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. Line 5 delivers more than 500,000 barrels daily of crude oil and natural gas liquids, which are refined into propane. These products heat homes and businesses, fuel vehicles, and power industry.

Improving pipeline performance is a shared goal of PHMSA and the industry. The era in which pipeline operations focused on maximum shipments of oil and gas is over. Today, the task of industry and regulators is to manage the implications of a new world in which safety is paramount.

Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan and a scholar at The American Enterprise Institute.

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