LANSING – An agreement between the state of Michigan and Enbridge Energy Partners on the Line 5 oil pipeline calls for a series of safety measures such as moving it beneath the St. Clair River and a study into putting it underneath the Straits of Mackinac as well, but the state says shutting down the pipeline entirely remains an option.
Critics of the pipeline called the agreement inadequate and said nothing short of initiating the pipeline’s shutdown is satisfactory.
The agreement comes after revelations in the last month that Enbridge officials knew of damage to the pipeline’s protective coating in the straits portion but told a state board there were no concerns related to the coating and that “a majority” of the 48 anchor locations divers have inspected so far have coating gaps. There are 128 total anchor locations.
The agreement also calls for temporary shutdowns of the pipeline underneath the straits when waves exceed eight feet for more than an hour and the placement of a state-hired expert alongside Enbridge in the evaluation of new technologies to enhance leak detection and the condition of the pipeline’s protective coating, measures to avoid a ship’s anchor striking the line and alternatives to replace the portion of the line at the bottom of the Straits.
“Business as usual by Enbridge is not acceptable and we are going to ensure the highest level of environmental safety standards are implemented to protect one of Michigan’s most valuable natural resources,” Governor Rick Snyder said in a statement. “The items required in this agreement are good strides forward. The state is evaluating the entire span of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline and its future, but we cannot wait for the analyses to be completed before taking action to defend our waterways.”
Following the revelations during the last month, Mr. Snyder and top officials in his administration have heavily criticized Enbridge and said the trust in the company had eroded. Enbridge critics had renewed their demands the state go to court to claim the company is in violation of the 1953 easement allowing it to have the pipeline at the bottom of the straits.
Snyder, speaking to reporters Monday, said it was time to speak to Enbridge directly and get an agreement organized.
“Let’s get something in place that I think can be good for the citizens of Michigan that is very transparent, very proactive, very milestone-driven and showing positive progress to protect the Great Lakes,” he said.
The agreement is a major step forward to “saying this is serious stuff,” Mr. Snyder said. He said he believes the state has Enbridge’s attention and commitment to address the issues with Line 5.
Asked why he trusted Enbridge would abide by the agreement after all the times he and his administration have said the company was not forthcoming about problems with the pipeline, Snyder said the mechanisms exist in the agreement to assure verification the company is following the deal.
“As we go through this process, it’s not just about trust – hopefully they’re earning trust and we’re building trust – but it’s also verified and to stay on top of it and to make sure that final decisions are going to await how well this progress goes, but we have tangible steps to improve things that I think are a major step forward from where we were in the past,” he said.
The agreement with Enbridge would require that the portion of Line 5 under the St. Clair River be moved under the river through the use of horizontal directional drilling, the same method the company used where its Line B traverses the river. And the company will study moving the portion under the Straits of Mackinac to a tunnel or to a trench with secondary containment. That was among the top recommendations in the alternatives analysis on the pipeline released earlier this year.
Valerie Brader, executive director for the Michigan Agency for Energy, called the agreement a move to mitigate risk while studying whether alternatives like tunneling under the straits are technologically and financially feasible. The state will soon have a contract in place for a group to conduct a risk analysis of Line 5.
The agreement with Enbridge calls for the company to submit by June 15, 2018 a report assessing the replacement possibilities for the twin pipelines at the bottom of the straits. It also sets a goal of August 15, 2018, for the state and Enbridge to reach a new agreement on further actions regarding the pipeline.
“Any final decision regarding the pipe will be reached in August of ’18,” Brader said when asked why the state did not opt to seek immediate shutdown of the pipeline. “This is not a final decision today on what the future of the pipeline is.”
Brader said either the state would reach a cooperative agreement with Enbridge by that date, “or the state would take another path.”
Pressed on what that other path could be, Brader said the state needs more information to know the answer, but did eventually say after repeated questioning, “Shutting the pipeline down is still on the table, yes.”
The agreement would also require that the pipeline be shut down during adverse weather – defined as waves of more than eight feet for 60 minutes – where response to a spill would be hampered. An Enbridge monitor will track wave heights through both near-real time data from a buoy as well as a forecast model and initiate shutdown procedures when the threshold is reached.
The rationale behind waves of eight feet is it would render oil spill recovery technology ineffective, Brader said.
Enbridge would be required to install technology that would allow faster response to a leak and that would reduce the potential for a boat anchor strike on the pipeline. It also would be required to consider cameras or other technology that would allow continuous monitoring of the exterior of the pipeline.
The state would also be allowed to participate in all of the evaluations so the information collected would potentially be public.
The agreement calls for Enbridge and someone representing the state to evaluate Line 5’s other water crossings to assess measures to minimize a potential spill at those locations. The company must submit by June 30, 2018 plans prioritizing water crossings jointly identified by the company and the state as a concern with a schedule for implementing those measures. Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh said there are about 245 water crossings by Line 5 in the state.
Enbridge, in a statement, said while Line 5 remains “in good shape and is fit for service” from an engineering and operational perspective, the company realizes its internal technical studies “haven’t translated well into reassuring the public or Michigan leaders about the ongoing safe operation of Line 5. We apologize if our actions sometimes have created confusion.”
The company, in its prepared statement, said it hopes the agreement is a step toward demonstrating its commitment to protecting the Great Lakes.
“Trust is earned, and while we have a long way to go, we remain committed to doing what it takes to rebuild trust and uphold our pledge to protect the environment while safely meeting Michigan’s energy needs,” the company said. “We appreciate the emphasis that Governor Snyder, other state leaders and the public place on the stewardship responsibilities that come with being part of the Great Lakes community. We also will do our part with increased responsiveness by taking meaningful, concrete actions.”
Guy Jarvis, Enbridge executive vice president of liquids pipelines, told reporters on a conference call that the agreement would improve coordination between the company and the state. The company has traditionally relied on risk assessment when determining when to advise the state of a problem, but that’s not enough anymore, he said.
“It needs to be toward providing as much transparency as possible as opposed to that historical reliance on risk,” he said.
The company has no estimate on what it would cost to build a tunnel to hold the pipeline under the straits, Jarvis said. Asked if the company would want government money to help cover the cost of tunneling under the straits, he said: “At this stage of the game, that’s not something we’re considering. Down the road, we’ll have to see how that plays out.”
Jarvis seemed skeptical that another scenario to be studied in the agreement for replacing the pipeline under the straits – horizontal directional drilling – would work. It would likely be the longest such directionally drilled pipeline in the industry, he said.
The deadlines in the agreement are aggressive but achievable, he said. Jarvis said he anticipated, if anything, the company would know what replacement alternative for Line 5 is best ahead of schedule.
“We know that the people of Michigan want to know more about the operation of Line 5. We understand the value the people of the state place on waterways in Michigan. Our employees live there,” he said. “We do need to change the way we are engaging with the state.”
Attorney General Bill Schuette, who had previously praised the idea of putting Line 5 into a tunnel under the straits, welcomed the new agreement. An assistant attorney general assisted the Snyder administration with the agreement, but Schuette placed a conflict wall to keep him out of the discussions. Schuette spokesperson Andrea Bitely said Schuette and the governor’s office took that action in case the governor and attorney general took differing positions, but that did not occur.
“Today’s announcement is a good step forward toward fulfilling our responsibilities to protect the Great Lakes and the health of Michigan citizens,” Schuette said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy, said he would continue working to address the concerns raised by the pipeline.
“This issue is not going away until it gets fixed,” Upton said in a statement. “Zero tolerance for error is the only thing we will accept along with the highest safety standards in place to ensure the Great Lakes will not be at risk. I look forward to continuing to work with Governor Snyder and the state of Michigan in coordinating a state and federal response. We will stay on the case through completion.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) said the agreement was a step toward protecting the lakes. “A spill in this area would be devastating for the Great Lakes ecosystem, economy and our way of life, and that is a risk we cannot afford to take,” she said in a statement. “Enbridge has repeatedly failed to disclose potential vulnerabilities to this pipeline, and this agreement will help hold the company to account, ensure the public is informed and that critical safety standards are in place. While this is an important step, I continue to believe that if a comprehensive study of the pipelines finds Line 5 to be unsafe, it should be shut down.”
Environmental groups said the agreement was at best premature. “We are concerned that this agreement shortcuts exploration of better options for protecting the Great Lakes and our economy by favoring the option of tunneling under the Straits of Mackinac,” the National Wildlife Federation said in a statement. “This option still leaves Michigan with all the risks of Line 5 while receiving very few of the benefits.”
The group said the alternatives analysis included less risky options than moving the pipeline to a tunnel.
The NWF and others also complained that the state is still relying on Enbridge for information on the operations of the pipeline.
“Instead of shutting down this dangerous pipeline, our state leaders continue to place an enormous amount of trust in Enbridge to operate it responsibly-even while the company continues to repeatedly break that trust,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “What we got today were more studies, more half-measures, more strong words, and more assurances a catastrophe won’t happen. Citizens are demanding real action. Governor Snyder and Attorney General Schuette have the power to shut Line 5 down, they simply are not using it.”
“It’s remarkable given Enbridge’s pattern and practice of lying to the state about Line 5’s condition that the governor is now trusting Enbridge to abide by a new agreement,” Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For the Love of Water, said in a statement. “This puts the future of the Great Lakes in the hands of Enbridge.”
Kirkwood and other members of the Oil and Water Don’t Mix coalition said the only correct solution is shuttering the pipeline.
“Putting in more technology to ensure we find out sooner when Line 5 ruptures is not the same as protecting the Great Lakes,” said Anne Woiwode, conservation chair for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.
Gubernatorial candidates also weighed in on the agreement.
In addition to Schuette, who is running for governor but commented as attorney general, Republican Jim Hines praised the elements requiring the pipeline to shut down in severe weather.
“It is about time,” Hines said in a statement. “Because of the potential damage to our Great Lakes, I called for shutting down the Enbridge Line 5 earlier this year.”
Abdul El-Sayed, running for the Democratic nomination, said the plan calls for trust in Enbridge that he said is misplaced. “Governor Snyder’s deal with Canadian oil company Enbridge leaves the future of the Great Lakes in the hands of a corporation that has called the shots for too long, obfuscated the facts, and played fast and loose with our Great Lakes,” he said in a statement. “Snyder’s deal shows the same failed leadership on the responsibility to protect our State’s most important natural resource.”
And former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer said the steps taken Monday “half-measures” that put too much faith in a company that has “consistently misled the public.”
“Asking Enbridge for another study is about as effective as asking a fox to guard a hen house. Replacing a fraction of a 645-mile pipe under the St. Clair River means very little to someone whose job depends on the Great Lakes,” she said in a statement. “And there’s no weather, including ‘sustained adverse weather,’ which permits timely response to an oil spill. It’s time for Michigan to elect a Governor who has a real plan to get the oil out of the great lakes.”
This story was published by Gongwer News Service.