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State task force: Straits pipelines stay open

July 20, 2015

State officials called for a ban on moving heavy crude oil through the 62-year-old pipelines that run beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

But state officials conceded that, to their knowledge, heavy crude has never flown through the pipelines. And Enbridge, the company that owns the pipelines, said it told the state previously that “there have never been any prior, current or future plans to move heavy crudes through” the pipelines. 

That recommendation was the first of 13 from the report on Michigan’s petroleum pipelines, which dropped today at a press conference led by the chairs of the report’s task force — Dan WYANT, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Attorney General Bill SCHUETTE. 

Some environmentalists have called for removing the pipelines from the bottom of the straits, given the projected effects of what an oil spill could do to the Great Lakes. 

But today’s report did not recommend that. It included four recommendations specific to the straits pipelines — which is one pipeline on land that splits into two under the straits — and nine general recommendations on Michigan pipelines. 

The company and the state have said before the straits pipelines carry only “light” crude oil and natural gas liquids. 

But state officials argued transportation of heavy crude had still been a possibility until these recommendations were made. And they said implementing the ban is necessary to prevent such a possibility, particularly because if a spill occurred, heavy crude wouldn’t float to the surface like a lighter oil would, making cleanup in the straits more difficult. 

“It’s a recognition of the uniqueness of the location of the pipeline,” said Schuette and Wyant. 

“We’re adding an additional feature, an additional safety measure, an additional safety precaution, with a capital ‘S’ for safety, underlined, exclamation point, that’s what we’re doing,” Schuette said, in reference to heavy crude ban in the pipelines. 

Rep. Jeff IRWIN (D-Ann Arbor) called that recommendation “creative phraseology,” adding that it’s “very disappointing because they’re proposing to do absolutely nothing. We need to get some inspections and re-route that traffic to a less sensitive area.” 

Another recommendation regarding the straits pipelines was that the state would be “mandating full and complete insurance coverage for liability,” as Schuette put it. 

Asked to expand on this, Schuette said the original 1953 lease for the pipelines required the contractor to carry at least $1 million in coverage, but now it needs to be “brought into the 21st century.” 

Asked further if Enbridge is under-insured on the pipelines today, Schuette responded, “We are making sure they will be fully and completely providing full liability coverage.” 

The task force also called for an “independent analysis” to look into alternatives for running pipelines under the straits. 

The reason for this, Schuette said, is because “you wouldn’t build and construct a pipeline under the straits today, and so, if you wouldn’t do it today, how many more tomorrows would the pipelines be operational? It would be a short duration, in my opinion.” 

Schuette suggested the pipelines’ days are “numbered,” but said that was up to the proposed independent analysis of experts to figure out what comes next. 

The fourth recommendation related to the straits pipelines was to “obtain additional information from Enbridge” related to the pipelines. 

The task force has been working on this report for a year, meeting with various interested parties in an effort to craft recommendations regarding the future of the straits pipelines and other pipelines in the state. 

Besides Schuette and Wyant, other state department heads and officials participated in the task force. 

There were nine recommendations looking at pipelines statewide. 

One included evaluating whether the state needs to organize its own pipeline inspection program. The feds usually have jurisdiction over inspecting pipelines, but five states have taken on this responsibility themselves, Wyant said. 

Another included encouraging legislation that would require the state to review and approve oil spill response plans, improve spill reporting and install more robust civil fines. 

Enbridge commended the work of the task force in a statement, pledging to review the entire report to “further understand the recommendations and additional analysis that is being proposed.” 

Some environmental groups were generally receptive to the task force’s work, but some were still not satisfied with the action plan. 

The Michigan Environmental Council commended the task force for including the right ideas, “but only if they are implemented with a sense of urgency and accountability.” 

And the National Wildlife Federation celebrated the report as a “major step forward” to protect the Great Lakes and its wildlife from a spill. 

But the Sierra Club called for completely shutting down the straits pipelines. The integrity of the 62-year-old pipelines have been questioned by some, particularly when it sprung a “pinhole leak” in December 2014, although not in the part that runs underneath the straits.

So why didn’t the task force call for closing the pipelines? Wyant said it came down to the state’s dependence on petroleum, as well as the increase in domestic production of oil products. 

Schuette’s description of the timeline for carrying out the recommendations was “prompt and soon.” The advocacy organization For the Love of Water (FLOW) didn’t think that was concrete enough. 

“Allowing the oil to continue flowing while awaiting further information is simply unacceptable given the ongoing risk and magnitude of harm to the Great Lakes,” said Liz KIRKWOOD, executive director of FLOW, in a statement. 

The Sierra Club and FLOW are both part of the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, which it said has been raising structural concerns about the pipelines.

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