GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — New court documents in the fight over Line 5 show that an energy industry consultant hired by Enbridge estimates shutting down the pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac would have a minimal impact on fuel prices.
The documents stem from a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin filed by the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
According to the report filed by Neil Earnest, prices for gasoline, jet fuel and diesel would rise by an estimated 0.5 cents per gallon. The impact in Ontario would be far greater, closer to 5 cents per gallon.
Sean McBrearty, the legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action, says this proves we don’t need a pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.
“Enbridge’s main argument, for years, ever since we started talking about (Line 5), is that Michigan really needs Line 5,” McBrearty told News 8. “We need it for gas. We need it for propane. Then, once we started getting experts in the energy industry to look into these claims with publicly available information, the experts were able to disprove that notion.”
A spokesperson for Enbridge refutes those claims, accusing environmental activists of “cherry picking” select parts of Earnest’s analysis and presenting “an inaccurate view of the impacts associated with shutting down Line 5.”
While the final impact on fuel costs is correct, Enbridge claims that figure assumes replacement infrastructure has been built and is fully operational. Before the new line is up and running, costs would presumably be higher. The company also claims refineries would be forced to shut down and many jobs would be lost, specifically in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. McBrearty refutes that claim.
“If you have the same supply of oil and the same demand of oil, which the fact that there’s no price difference tells you there would be no supply difference,” he said. “There are other ways of getting that oil to refineries.”
McBrearty notes that fact is beside the point, saying the burden should be on Enbridge to find another way to transport its product without threatening the Great Lakes.
“There have been studies for years that show we don’t need Line 5. … This shows that Enbridge knows that, too. They need Line 5 to keep their profits flowing, but Michigan doesn’t need Line 5, the region doesn’t need Line 5, and not even Canada needs Line 5,” McBrearty said.
Enbridge also pointed to a study published in March by the Consumers Energy Alliance that estimates Michigan families and businesses would pay approximately $2 billion more per year on gas and diesel if Line 5 shuts down. The Consumers Energy Alliance is comprised of several fuel, trucking, mining and energy companies and unions.
Beth Wallace, the Great Lakes partnerships manager for the National Wildlife Foundation, said the study was “not grounded in fact.”
“The Consumers Energy Alliance calling this a ‘study’ is a major stretch of the imagination – this is an oil disinformation PR effort,” Wallace told the Detroit News. “The report is full of unrealistic assumptions that are so far from reality, it will be alarming if any decision-makers take it seriously.”
McBrearty echoed that point.
“This so-called study from Consumers Energy Alliance was 14 pages, and the only real sources that they were using were public testimony from oil industry executives,” McBrearty said. “Well, there’s one big problem with that. You’re not required to tell the truth in public testimony. … One of the refineries in Toledo claimed it would really be impacted by a Line 5 shutdown, but when you look at their SEC filings and when you look at other federal filings that they have, they tell a completely different story.”
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT LINE 5
Line 5 was first built in the Straits of Mackinac in 1953. It consists of two, 20-inch diameter pipelines that run parallel to each other. The lines carry up to 540,000 barrels of fuel per day, including light crude oil, light synthetic crude and natural gas liquids, which are then refined into propane.
Enbridge is a Canadian company based in Calgary, Alberta. But Line 5 operates almost solely on U.S. soil. The lines start in Superior, Wisconsin, winding through Michigan’s upper peninsula before crossing the Straits of Mackinac. From there it travels south to Bay City and bends east, crossing the St. Clair River to Sarnia, Ontario. While some of the fuel is transferred to refineries in Michigan and Ohio, most of it is transferred to refineries in Ontario and Quebec.
The pipes in the Straits are seamless, coated with enamel and are 0.812 inches thick, which is three times as thick as a typical pipeline. Before being installed, Enbridge says the pipelines were tested and withstood pressure up to four times what it faces in the Straits.
Enbridge claims the pipeline has operated “without incident” in the Straits of Mackinac. While that may be true, it is certainly misleading.
A report published in 2012 by the National Wildlife Federation, Line 5 has leaked at least 29 times, spilling more than 1 million gallons of oil, although none directly in the Straits of Mackinac. Also, federal data only dates back to 1968 and doesn’t cover Line 5’s first 15 years.
Enbridge has also violated safety standards in the past, including a $6.7 million fine for failing to address pipeline failures in a timely manner
The largest Line 5 spill occurred in 1999 near Crystal Falls in Iron County. More than 220,000 gallons of crude oil spilled through a 4-inch hairline crack in one of the pipelines that was buried 3 feet underground. According to a report from the Associated Press, a little more than half of the oil was collected, but a lot of it was burned off.
Environmentalists also highlight how the spills were discovered. Wallace, who helped author a 2012 NWF report on Enbridge and Line 5, told MLive that all but one of the spills were discovered by the public, not by Enbridge’s leak detection systems.
One of the most notable incidents over the last few years happened in 2020 when an anchor support on the pipeline was “significantly damaged.”
According to Oil & Water Don’t Mix, a nonprofit focused on shutting down Line 5, the damage occurred in 2019, but Enbridge didn’t find it until June 18, 2020. Both lines were shut down as a precaution, but two days later, the company restarted one of the two pipelines because it deemed it safe.
One week after the damage was discovered, an Ingham County Judge granted Attorney General Dana Nessel’s request to have the entire pipeline shut down temporarily. One pipeline was allowed to reopen on July 1. The second pipeline eventually reopened two months later.
CLEANING THE KALAMAZOO RIVER
Enbridge’s worst spill didn’t occur on Line 5; it occurred on Line 6B in Marshall. On July 25, 2010, a pipeline burst in a wetland near the Talmadge Creek.
According to Bridge Michigan, Enbridge employees monitoring the pipeline in Canada didn’t notice the rupture for 17 hours. By the time the leak could be stopped, more than 840,000 gallons of heavy crude oil had spilled, trickling from the creek and into the Kalamazoo River.
Investigators with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Enbridge knew the 41-year-old pipeline had several cracks and worn-down spots due to corrosion.
The cleanup process took years. Crews recovered more than 1 million gallons of oil from the Kalamazoo River and surrounding areas. Enbridge stands by its estimate and contends some of that oil must be from other sources.
In July of 2020, 10 years after the spill, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy signed off on Enbridge’s submission that the oil cleanup was officially done.
THE POTENTIAL FOR DISASTER
The calls to shut down Line 5 have grown in the wake of the Kalamazoo River spill, demanding action to protect the Great Lakes, one of the world’s largest sources of fresh water.
Multiple studies show that a major leak in the Straits of Mackinac would devastate the Great Lakes. A 2016 study, led by University of Michigan hydrodynamics expert David Schwab, ran 840 simulations of a 25,000-barrel leak in the Straits of Mackinac. The study found up to 720 miles of shoreline on the U.S. and Canadian coasts of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron would require cleanup. Mackinac and Bois Blanc Islands would also face serious risk, along with Beaver Island, Harbor Springs and Cheboygan.
“These findings show that under the right conditions, a spill in the Straits of Mackinac could affect a significant amount of shoreline and open-water areas in either Lake Michigan or Lake Huron, or both, very quickly,” Schwab said in a university report.
That doesn’t factor in the economic toll, either, which is estimated into the billions.
A study commissioned by nonprofit group For Love of Water estimates a 25,000-barrel spill in the Straits of Mackinac could drain up to $6 billion from the region.
The study was led by experts from Michigan State University. Researchers estimated the shipping lanes of the Soo Locks and the St. Marys River would need to close for at least 12 days.
Researchers estimate the closures would lead to gridlock and ripple effects on the region, including short-term closures or layoffs at mines, steel mills and refineries. Product costs would go up because of a shortage of product and tax revenue would be lost.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
So where does the fate of Line 5 sit now? In the courts and among the red tape.
In November 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked the 1953 easement allowing the Canadian company to run its pipelines through the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge was supposed to shut it down by May of 2021 but blew past the deadline, taking Whitmer to court over the decision.
Nessel and Whitmer dropped a federal lawsuit against Enbridge, hoping instead to try the case in a state court. Likewise, Enbridge feels it has an edge in a federal courtroom, leaning on a 1977 treaty that it claims prevents any state from shutting down any infrastructure that transports hydrocarbons across borders without full approval from the other country. Whether that is an accurate interpretation of the treaty or one that holds up in court remains to be seen.
While President Joe Biden has championed green energy and a shift away from fossil fuels, the White House hasn’t taken any formal action against Enbridge or Canada.
Enbridge is also working on a tunnel project to replace Line 5. Enbridge reached a deal with former Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2018 but have yet to break ground. The $500 million project would dig a tunnel 100 feet below the Straits. However, EGLE, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Michigan Public Safety Commission still need to sign off on it. A decision from the MPSC could come this summer.
— Editor’s Note: Two paragraphs have been edited to provide more clarity on Enbridge’s past safety violations and on President Biden’s comments on Line 5. We regret the errors.