Editorial: Pipeline plan should keep Great Lakes safer
Task force bans the more dangerous tar sands crude from Mackinac Strait's conduit, explores other measures for guarding against spills
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette took a prudent step to protect the Great Lakes from an environmental disaster stemming from a break in the underwater pipelines carrying petroleum across the Straits of Mackinac.
The task force the attorney general heads recommends keeping the most dangerous crude oil out of the twin pipelines while allowing them to stay open for other products.
The Enbridge Energy Line 5 pipeline will not be permitted to move the heavy Alberta Tar Sands crude from Canada into the United States because that oil is so heavy it sinks in open water, making it very difficult to clean up.
None of the tar sands oil currently is in the pipelines, Schuette said, but inquiries have been made about using the conduit for that purpose.
Line 5 will continue to deliver other petroleum products crucial to the nation's economy, including light oils and liquified natural gas.
Environmental activists wanted the pipeline shut off altogether, a move that could have placed the Great Lakes at even greater danger.
Taking the pipeline out of service would have required suppliers to find other means of transport. The most likely alternatives would be tanker ships, trucks and rail cars. Replacing Line 5's capacity would take 50 to 75 tanker ships, 2,000 trucks and a couple of hundred additional rail cars. Spills from mobile delivery options are far more likely than from the 60-year-old pipeline, which has never had a leak.
Schuette is correct in saying that given today's heightened environmental awareness, the pipeline would not be built today under the straits. But it is there, and serves an important function, so keeping it safe is essential.
To that end, the task force recommends requiring Enbridge to provide full liability coverage in the case of a spill. When the pipelines were built in 1953, they were required to carry $1 million in insurance. Schuette wants an independent assessment of what that amount should be today.
In addition, the task force is asking for additional documentation on the safety inspections Enbridge conducts of the lines. That information is provided to the federal government, and the state should have it, too.
Finally, Enbridge will be asked to fund an assessment of alternatives to the pipelines. If there are indeed safer, cost effective methods of getting the products to refineries, they should be employed.
More than 500,000 barrels a day of oil and liquified gas products move through Line 5. The volume represents both a significant risk to the lakes and a vital economic resource for the nation.
It is essential to keep the oil out of the Great Lakes. The task force recommendations are a recognition of the importance of achieving that goal.