When President Barack Obama officially rejected the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline in September, it marked the end of a seven-year battle that even he admitted had become largely symbolic. The issue — the proposed construction of a pipeline owned by oil giant TransCanada Corp., which would move crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on Texas’ gulf coast — had spiraled into a partisan controversy pitting environmentalists against industry. In his speech announcing the rejection, Obama summed up the issue as neither “a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”
In a way, it's strange that such a fuss was made over Keystone XL in the first place. The pipeline would've been far from the only one in the U.S. In fact, there are already 2.5 million miles of pipelines coursing through the country — filled with oil, natural gas, and other products. Even without Keystone XL, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced that in 2014, U.S. oil production increased from 1.2 million barrels per day to 8.7 million barrels — the largest increase in more than a century. And there are other proposals for more pipelines on the way.
But in the years that Washington spent debating Keystone, some environmentalists have instead turned their concerns to one of these existing pipelines, arguing it could pose a very real threat to one of North America's most treasured and important natural resources: the Great Lakes.
When first completed in 1953, what is now known as Line 5 — now owned by another Canadian giant, Enbridge, Inc. — was a feat of modern engineering. Up until that point, oil from Alberta's Athabasca oil sands was transported eastward to refineries in Ontario through an extensive pipeline system. But the oil had to be transferred onto barges to cross the Great Lakes, which were halted when the lakes froze over in the winter.
That's when Enbridge's predecessor, the Lakehead Pipe Line Co., figured it could transport the oil under the Straits of Mackinac. They split Line 5's 30-inch pipeline into two 20-inch diameter pipelines, laid down along the bottom of the straits about 1,000 feet apart and reaching depths of over 200 feet. When it was completed, the totality of Line 5 (from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario) was the largest pipeline in the world, and the 4-mile-long straits portion was five times longer than had ever been built before.
At the time, Imperial Oil Co., the Lakehead Pipe Co.'s parent company, described the straits pipeline as "probably the most difficult project ever undertaken by pipeline engineers." Its engineers boasted that the structure would safely last 50 years.
That, of course, was 62 years ago.
A mucky track record
Today, Line 5 transports 540,000 barrels, or 22.7 million gallons, of light crude oil and natural gas liquids per day. That's roughly the equivalent of 688 railroad tank cars or 2,512 tanker trucks. In fact, it's a recent increase in capacity — in 2013, Enbridge upgraded its pumping systems to increase the rate by 50,000 barrels, up from 490,000 barrels per day.
But while pipelines are regarded as safer and more efficient than transporting oil using barges or railroad, the system is not immune to spills. And Enbridge has had many spills already. Between 1999 and 2010, Enbridge was responsible for more than 800.
In fact, Enbridge can lay claim to another world record. On July, 25, 2010, Line 6B — another pipeline, which routes oil from a Chicago-area node south around Lake Michigan and toward Sarnia — ruptured near Marshall, Mich. The spill resulted in nearly 20,000 barrels — 840,000 gallons — of heavy crude oil flowing into Talmadge Creek, which made its way into the Kalamazoo River.
It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. And as far as PR disasters go, the timing couldn't have been worse. Enbridge's accident followed on the heels of the largest accidental marine oil spill of all time, as response crews were still trying to cap BP's disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released more than 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico over three months.
An investigation revealed that it took Enbridge more than 18 hours to learn of the Kalamazoo River spill. And while alarms did sound, the pipeline operators thought they meant there was a block in the pipeline, and increased the pressure to try and clear the pipes — pumping even more oil into the river.
The mess polluted 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River and 4,435 acres of adjacent shoreline habitats, resulting in a five-year cleanup. To date, Enbridge has paid an estimated $1.2 billion to clean up the spill, in addition to more than $80 million in state and federal fines.
Across the country, there's been more oil spilled. In 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline dumped 1,000 barrels into the Yellowstone River in Montana. In 2013, another ExxonMobil pipeline burst in Arkansas, releasing 3,190 barrels of oil. In 2015, a pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline LP burst, releasing 2,500 barrels of oil off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. It was the largest coast spill in the state in a quarter century.
The Great Lakes are home to 20 percent of the world's freshwater and 90 percent of the freshwater in the U.S., providing drinking water for 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, the lakes host wildlife reserves, fisheries, and recreational boating. In the straits, Mackinac Island is a popular tourist draw and resort destination.
Technically, Lakes Michigan and Huron are one body of water, divided only by the straits. And that's what has some experts worried.
Following the Line 6B disaster, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in 2012 released "Sunken Hazard: Aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes." The 16-page report called for immediate action to address Line 5. "History has proven that agencies and pipeline operators continue to favor a reactionary approach to pipeline oversight," the report reads. "Unless action is taken, an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac isn't a question of if — it's a question of when."
It's a cause that the NWF has continued to address. In 2013, the organization commissioned a dive to take a firsthand look at the pipelines. The underwater photos they released showed large expanses of the pipelines were unsupported by any anchoring structures — a possible breach of the Lakehead Pipe Line Co.'s original 1953 Easement with the state of Michigan, which mandated that "the maximum span or length of pipe unsupported shall not exceed seventy-five (75) feet." The dive also showed that the pipes were almost entirely encrusted with exotic zebra mussels and quagga mussels that didn't exist in the Great Lakes until the 1980s, which have since rapidly multiplied due to their lack of natural predators.
The NWF also commissioned a study that would create a computer simulation of what a spill in the straits would look like. The results of the study, released in 2014, sounded more alarms among environmentalists.
"I stand by my quote [at the time] — I can't think of a worse place to have an oil spill in the Great Lakes in terms of how fast it would spread, how far it would, and how unpredictably it would spread," says David Schwab, the University of Michigan oceanographer and hydrodynamics expert who was tapped by the NWF to create the simulation.
Schwab calls the currents in the straits "unbelievably atypical" in that they oscillate in direction — from Lake Michigan to Huron, and vice versa — on a cycle of two to three days. The lakes, he says, respond to the local weather patterns, and notes that weather as far away as Chicago and Port Huron can affect the flow through the straits. And Schwab says when that flow is at its peak, the amount of water can be up to 10 to 20 times what goes over Niagara Falls, at speeds as strong as those found in the Detroit River.
Schwab released a series of animations along with the study, illustrating the flow of spilled oil. While each video varies depending on conditions, all show the same sort of churning motion between the two lakes, which disperses particles far and wide in every direction.
"Anything that was released into the water could move into Lake Huron or Lake Michigan with almost equal probability," he says.
The simulations were largely based on two scenarios: one 20-day period where the water in the straits was initially moving from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, and a second scenario using a 20-day period where the water was initially moving from Huron to Michigan. Within those scenarios, Schwab simulated leaks from the north side, the center, and the south side of the straits. In every case Schwab found that materials could be moved up to 50 miles.
Schwab used a hypothetical 12-hour release period, but he says it wouldn't matter how long the leak occurred. "The point of it was to show how much area could potentially be impacted by a spill," he says. "And that really doesn't depend on how long the spill was. It can travel just as far if it was released for a little bit of time — but the longer the spill, probably the more widespread the impact would be."
Schwab says the study represents a small sampling of possible outcomes — ideally, hundreds of simulations would be tested with different variables. But it's not just a matter of simply running a computer program: Such a study would need scientists to analyze the data as well.
One aspect that Schwab says does need more studying is what the currents look like in the winter, when the lakes are covered in a sheet of ice. He says researchers have not had any measures of currents under the thick sheets of ice until this year, and those simulations are currently underway. "What we'd expect is that if Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are open, it doesn't matter if the straits are frozen," he says. "You'll still get the oscillating flow."
Other conditions that could hinder an oil spill recovery are the wave heights. According to recent Detroit Free Press report, conditions of 3- to 5-foot waves could delay a response for hours or even days — conditions that are by no means rare in the straits.
New information making the case against Line 5's precarious location seems to be released in a trickle as scientists and activists further study the Great Lakes.
Metro Times submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for documents pertaining to the safety of Line 5. It sought information regarding the integrity of the structure or inspection results — anything that could offer a look below the surface of the straits.
Instead, the documents revealed a potential problem on land.
One of the documents obtained included a report on the North Straits Pumping Station in St. Ignace, located just off the coast of the straits, where Line 5 splits off into the two straits pipelines. According to the report, Enbridge discovered contaminated soil at the pumping station while making upgrades in 2011.
The company wound up removing 361.6 tons of contaminated soil, the result of what the report called "historical releases of crude oil from the Enbridge pipeline system during routine maintenance activities." While removing groundwater from the site, Enbridge noticed a strong petroleum odor and installed a mechanical treatment system. Later, in 2013, Enbridge installed monitoring wells on the site, which detected low levels of volatile organic compounds in the groundwater.
Enbridge submitted an excavation report and a groundwater report to MDEQ, summarizing their activities and stating that no additional remedial activities were necessary. Concerned, MDEQ's Remediation and Redevelopment Division sent Enbridge a letter in Jan. 5 requesting further evaluation regarding the extent and origin of the contamination.
According to an additional report, as of September the site meets MDEQ's cleanup criteria, and Enbridge is sampling the water quarterly. When reached for comment, Scott Schaefer, a project manager for MDEQ, says the "historical releases" were most likely the result of many years of minor spills and not some singular undocumented event.
"It's been a pumping station for many years," he says. "According to their personnel, they thought that over the years as they were accessing that thing that there would have been some minor spills."
He says the St. Ignace effort is an example of Enbridge cleaning up its act following the Kalamazoo River disaster. "Five years ago, I don't think 5 percent of the people in Michigan knew that there was a pipeline that ran under the straits," he says. "Now, there's probably only 5 percent of the people who don't know that. As a company they've matured more environmentally. They're aware of some of their responsibilities, and taking it more seriously."
Why Enbridge didn't identify or address soil contaminated from "historical releases" as a potential problem until 2011 is another question. But Schaefer thinks what's important is that Enbridge did something. "From my assessment, they're trying to do things right," he says. "They know they're in the public's eye. They have to be a good corporate citizen now, and they realize that." (The implication that they felt they didn't have to be a good corporate citizen until people started asking questions is troubling, as is the fact the excavation has been previously unreported.)
Of course, other organizations have tried to file a FOIA for Line 5's safety data — and all have come up short. The NWF tried to obtain documents through the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA. On Oct. 22, 2013, the organization sent a request for all inspection reports for Line 5, underwater photos, and oil spill response plans.
PHMSA didn't respond with documents until nearly half a year later. In March 10, 2014, and April 17, 2014, they sent the NWF CDs containing Enbridge's oil spill response plans, though they were redacted "to protect law enforcement information that could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual," which FOIA exempts.
In May 2014, PHMSA attorney Amelia Samaras followed up on the inspection reports. "All of these requirements require the vast creation and maintenance of records, which operators, not PHMSA, maintain," the email read. "However, we routinely engage in enforcement actions for failure to prepare and maintain records." A June 19, 2014, response warned that some documents may be unavailable to protect "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential" from disclosure.
As of this year, PHMSA is still working on the NWF's initial Oct. 22, 2013, FOIA request. "You also inquired on whether 'unusual circumstances' applies to your FOIA request," a letter dated Feb. 12 reads. "At this time we would like to notify you that unusual circumstances applies to your request because of the need to search for and collect the requested records from an establishment separate from the office processing your request, which is our FOIA office in [EPA] Headquarters."
Mark Brush is another reporter who tried to obtain data on Line 5's safety using FOIA. Brush is a producer for Michigan Radio's WUOM in Ann Arbor, which has a segment called "MI Curious" in which listeners submit questions for the producers to investigate. Brush says following the NWF report, listeners wanted to know more about the safety of Line 5. So Brush tried to find out.
"I investigated that — trying to get to the bottom of it and what's the basic condition of it," Brush says. "Not whether it should be moved or what would happen if a spill happened. It was just essentially 'what's the condition of the pipeline' — and I couldn't get this question answered."
Brush says the company wouldn't go any further when he asked them to show him the data. "They were willing to meet with me and show me stuff, and take me out to the straits, but I hit a wall when I asked them to show me the data," he says. "That's when everything stopped."
Brush's most recent report, released in September, indicates "we're still waiting for confirmation of the health of Line 5." (The article ends with a disclaimer that Enbridge Energy is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio).
Enbridge maintains it carefully monitors the integrity of the pipelines using "inline inspection tools," or advanced sensors that travel inside the pipelines, scanning the thickness of the pipe walls. But the inline inspection tools' data can't be obtained via the Freedom of Information Act because they don't exist in a hard copy. Brush says regulators' only option is to log into a web portal and review the raw data. (As defined in the Freedom of Information Act, "public record" does not include computer software.)
"PHMSA doesn't physically have any of the copies of what these what these inline inspection tools show," Brush says. "So if you try to FOIA them, they're just like we don't have them — and they're right."
And if some politicians have their way, it could get even harder to obtain such data. Earlier this year, state Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth Twp.) introduced House Bill 4540, which would amend the Freedom of Information Act to exempt energy companies if such information "could be useful to a person in planning an attack on critical energy infrastructure." In other words: Oil companies should be allowed to operate in secrecy to protect stateside oil pipelines from terrorist attacks.
A spokeswoman for Heise said he would not be available to comment on the bill.
'The fox watching the henhouse'
In the wake of the NWF report, the state assembled the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force, co-chaired by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and MDEQ director Dan Wyant (whose resume includes another water-related SNAFU, regarding the recent lead poisoning of the drinking water of thousands of Flint residents.)
Following a year of analysis and information-gathering, the task force released a report in July. The report criticized Enbridge on multiple fronts, pointing out that Line 5's safety data has not been made public. And the report confirmed the results of NWF's dive — Enbridge had seemingly failed to comply with the original 1953 Easement, which said no span should exceed 75 feet. According to the report, as of July 2014 there were still some unsupported spans exceeding the 75-foot limits, though it indicates that Enbridge says it has since rectified the problem.
The report also questioned Enbridge's judgment in determining the costs to clean up a spill in the straits. In correspondence with the state, Enbridge initially estimated total cleanup and oversight costs for a "worst-case" spill would range from approximately "$445 million (summer spill scenario) to approximately $900 million (winter spill scenario)." But according to the report, Enbridge later backtracked, asserting that total costs would only come to $400 million. The flip-flopping didn't help Enbridge's trustworthiness. "Enbridge's estimates cannot be considered completely objective as it has an inherent economic incentive to under-estimate the magnitude of a spill and the resulting liability," the report says.
The report maintains the state has the authority to ultimately shut down Line 5 using a court order if it could prove "that there were clear violations of the 1953 Easement or state law, that there was an imminent threat that the straits pipelines would fail, and that such a threat outweighed any interest in Enbridge continuing to operate the pipeline."
Yet even though Enbridge was found to be in violation of the 75-foot spans, the report falls short of calling on Enbridge to halt the flow of oil through the straits, indicating "at this juncture, particularly given the nearly unanimous view that there is inadequate information at this time to fully evaluate the risks presented by the straits pipelines, the task force does not find a basis for recommending that the state take the extraordinary action of seeking a court order to immediately shut down the straits pipelines."
David Holtz says the task force is a start, but it's not enough. Holtz is the Sierra Club's Michigan chair, and leads Oil and Water Don't Mix, a campaign to shut down the Straits pipeline.
He says ultimately the task force has been disappointing. "Instead of treating it with the kind of urgency that we think it deserves, they pretty much engaged in what amounts to process," he says. "Well, you know, you don't need a process. You need leadership. And what we've not gotten from the governor or the attorney general is leadership in addressing this urgent problem. We've just gotten process."
One example of this process: One of the task force's report's recommendations was for the state to appoint a pipeline safety advisory board. The group held its first public meeting Oct. 28. Holtz attended the meeting, and voiced his own concerns with the advisory board. "This is not a group of people who you will expect will do anything that isn't through the lens of what Enbridge's interests are," he says, pointing out that board members include Enbridge's Brad Shamla, vice president of U.S. operations, and Craig Pierson, president of Marathon Pipe Line LLC. "I think the whole thing is really just an attempt to put a buffer between the politicians and having to make a decision that would go against the oil industry," he says.
Holtz thinks it would be better if the state commissioned an independent study to look at alternatives. Instead, they've created a board whose members have too much at stake. "It's the fox watching the henhouse," he says. "It doesn't give you a lot of confidence in what the result is going to be."
Addicted to oil
In recent years, Enbridge has gotten pretty used to addressing public concerns over Line 5. Its website has a dedicated page for the pipeline with an easy-to-access URL: enbridge.com/line5. The page features colorful infographics touting the benefits of Line 5, emphasizing that the pipeline has been incident-free for more than 60 years. In September, Enbridge — in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement — staged a mock spill exercise in the straits. In a video about Line 5 for Vice's Motherboard channel, documentarian Spencer Chumbley characterized the drill as "a very interesting kind of dog and pony show" for the public. The results from the drill have not yet been made public.
When asked about the safety of Line 5 by phone, Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum launches into a well-rehearsed oral presentation on the pipeline at large — the kind of spiel you could easily imagine accompanying a PowerPoint presentation at a shareholders meeting. "It's a balance, I believe, we can strike between the energy that we all need and use on a daily basis and the environment," he says, prefacing the routine. "Keep that in mind as we talk."
Manshum explains that Line 5 carries two distinct products: light crude oil and natural gas liquids. The light crude makes up 80 percent of the contents of Line 5, while the NGLs make up 20 percent. In the Upper Peninsula, Line 5's NGLs are dropped off to get refined. The end product is propane, which is used to heat 85 percent of homes throughout the U.P. and northern Lower Peninsula. The straits pipelines do not carry the heavy crude oil that spilled in the Kalamazoo River.
About 30 percent of all the crude that's transported in the line gets off at Marysville, Mich., near Port Huron. Then it continues south to refineries in Detroit and Toledo. Here, Manshum would like to divert your attention to the endgame instead of the process. "Beyond that, it's asphalt for roads, feedstock for farmers, the case of an iPhone or Android, eyeglass frames, plastic water bottles, crayons, Vaseline," Manshum says. "All of those products come from petroleum that we transport to and through the state."
Manshum points out that Line 5's economic impact goes beyond what's refined from its products. We drifted away from the question of safety a long time ago. "It's really a multiplier effect of what happens," he says. "If you think of all the purchases we make in the community, all the goods and services, all the jobs that come from the crude oil — the refinery jobs, the oil industry jobs — that really is a huge component." He says Enbridge pays nearly $22 million in the state in property taxes, and employs roughly 250 people who live and work in Michigan.
Manshum, who answers questions with the look-over-there ease of a politician and speaks in monologues, says the dynamics of energy production in the U.S. have changed dramatically in the past decade — the U.S. is now the world's largest oil and gas producer. "North America could soon become energy self-sufficient — meaning we're not getting it from sources like, say, the Middle East or South America," he says.
Yet, as North America produces and transports more oil, public concern about fossil fuels is growing — due, in part, to high-profile spills, like Line 6B. "In Marshall, that was an extremely difficult time for the community. It also shook our company," Manshum says. "Before that incident, most people would have said Enbridge is one of the best, if not the best, oil pipeline companies in the world. But Marshall made us take a long, hard look in the mirror. And we realized we might have been good, but we weren't good enough."
Manshum says that when it comes to inspecting the safety, Enbridge doesn't just meet safety requirements, but exceeds them. The straits pipelines, he says, can safely operate at 1,700 PSI of operating pressure, but Enbridge only operates them between 0 and 300 PSI. And since the Line 6B incident, Manshum says Enbridge has implemented the largest and most comprehensive maintenance and inspection program of any pipeline system in the world.
"It's interesting. In all the years I've traveled back and forth between the peninsulas, there's never been a time of the year when I haven't seen a maintenance crew somewhere on the Mackinac Bridge," he says. "Even in the dead of winter, they're out there. I don't know about you, but I've always taken a sense of comfort in that, knowing that I can tangibly see people maintaining this bridge. We're doing the same thing, about a mile and a half to the west. It's just that you may not always see it on the surface of the water because the line is literally at the bottom of the straits."
Manshum has another analogy. "Think of an automobile," he says. "If you've ever seen a car with 100,000 miles, it could be in good shape and still be reliable from an engine standpoint. But to have gotten that far, you've had to do regular and routine maintenance. You can't just drive it 100,000 miles without touching it, because it won't last. In a car you're doing things like changing the oil and other fluids, changing brake pads. That's what also happens in the pipe. We're inspecting and maintaining and replacing valves and pump station equipment."
Regarding the task force, Manshum says Enbridge gave the state everything it requested, but admits Line 5's voluminous raw safety data needs to be interpreted by a third party. He says they're doing so now. "It's under development. The important thing is we do it in such a way that it works rather than trying to rush something and get it out the door," he says. "We're anxious to get it out, but we want to make sure we do it in a solid way. I don't have an actual date."
As far as the endgame for Line 5, Manshum says there are no plans to decommission it any time soon. "Rerouting Line 5 would be massively disruptive in many communities," he says. "Without Line 5, how would we satisfy our energy needs? That would mean either trucks on the road or railway cars. What we don't want is to go back to moving it on water by boat. The simple fact is pipelines are the safest, most effective way to move energy. So unless we get off of energy altogether and never move any product, we have to have pipelines."
Kicking the can
Environmentalists continue to pressure Enbridge and the state to reconsider Line 5, but some are resigned to the fact that Michigan's far-right-wing administration probably won't take any action on Line 5 any time soon.
"I think the only thing that is probably important for people to understand is that if the state continues on the path or the direction they're taking on this issue, it's going to be the next attorney general and next governor that will have to solve the problem. It's not going to be the current attorney general or current governor," says the Sierra Club's Holtz. "I think that they had the information they need, they had the opportunity to act, and everything that we've seen so far suggests that we can't expect them to take the kind of action that we need to begin the process of decommissioning Line 5."
And Holtz doesn't see any reason to believe Enbridge will make the call either. "Enbridge's basic position about their 62-year-old pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac is that it's safe because it hasn't ruptured yet. In other words, for 62 years it hasn't ruptured," he says. "But the problem with the logic behind that is, you could say that about every one of 116 pipeline incidents that happened between 2004 and 2013 — that up until they ruptured they were safe. You could say that, except it wouldn't be true."
The original 1953 Easement — the one that Enbridge was found to be violating as recently as 2014 by exceeding the mandated 75-foot span limits — also requires that "at all times [Enbridge] shall exercise the due care of a reasonably prudent person for the safety and welfare of all persons and of all public and private property."
Whether Enbridge can be described as "reasonably prudent" is, for critics, up for debate.
What can't be denied is that the only way to really guarantee there is never an oil spill in the Straits of Mackniac is if no oil flows through them.
The Pipeline Safety Advisory Board's next public meeting is 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14 at Constitution Hall, 525 W. Allegan St., Lansing; more information is available at 800-662-9278 and michigan.gov.