Next battleground: An aging Great Lakes
pipeline stirs new protest
Send a link to a friend
[April 28, 2017]
By Nia Williams
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The growing
protest movement against U.S. oil and gas pipelines has so far focused
on stopping or delaying new construction, with some high-profile
Now, in Michigan, a broad coalition of opponents is entering a new
frontier: Pushing to rip out and reroute an existing pipeline - Enbridge
Inc.'s <ENB.TO> aging Line 5, which crosses the Straits of Mackinac.
They fear the pipeline will leak into the Great Lakes, which contain
about a fifth of the world’s fresh water and sustain the state’s second-
and third-largest industries, agriculture and tourism.
Those concerns - which are shared by two likely candidates for governor
- also have far-reaching implications for energy firms and consumers.
Spanning 645 miles, Line 5 carries 540,000 barrels per day of light
Canadian crude and refined products between Wisconsin and Ontario,
making it a key link in Enbridge's network transporting western Canadian
oil to eastern refineries. It also delivers about half the propane used
to heat Michigan homes.
Moving the pipeline, built in 1953, would cost Enbridge $4.2 million per
mile - or about $2.7 billion total, according to an estimate from IHS
Markit analyst Phil Hopkins.
Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said that the line is structurally sound
and constantly monitored, tested and inspected to prevent leaks. The
firm plans to add 18 additional supports in the Straits this summer, he
The unprecedented demands to move an existing pipeline present steep
political and regulatory challenges, said Dirk Lever, an analyst with
AltaCorp Capital in Calgary.
"Move it? The question is where," he said. "And good luck with building
a new pipeline."
The Michigan controversy is only the latest pipeline fight.
Last year, protests by North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux, a Native
American tribe, garnered national attention and delayed the opening of
Energy Transfer Partners’ <ETP.N> Dakota Access Pipeline, which finally
won approval in February.
Another ETP pipeline proposed in Louisiana has drawn protests from flood
protection advocates and commercial fishermen.
The Keystone XL pipeline, planned by TransCanada Corp <TRP.TO>, now
faces a political showdown over route approval in Nebraska amid protests
from farmers and ranchers.
In Michigan, pipeline opponents include regional businesses and
churches, as well as local and national environmental groups.
State officials have ordered two independent reports, expected in June -
one on the pipeline's reliability and another on potential alternatives
if the state moves to revoke easements that allow Line 5 to operate. The
reports could fuel a debate that is expected to intensify in the 2018
Many opponents argue the 64-year-old Enbridge pipeline has already
outlived its predicted life span. They cite a 2015 interview with an
engineer on the original project, Bruce Trudgen, who said that, at the
time of construction, the pipeline was expected to last 50 years.
"Common sense dictates that a pipeline which is already 28 percent past
its viable life will eventually be decommissioned," said Gretchen
Whitmer, a former Michigan senator now campaigning for the Democratic
nomination for governor. "Government would be wise to plan for that
proactively - before disaster strikes."
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, widely expected to run for
governor as a Republican, has also expressed concerns about pipeline.
Enbridge, which operates more than 17,000 miles (28,000 kilometres) of
oil and gas pipeline across North America, disputes the assertion that
Line 5 has any specific life expectancy.
[to top of second column]
Swans paddle near the Mackinac Bridge, spanning the Straits of
Mackinac which connect two of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and
Lake Huron, in Mackinaw, Michigan, U.S. in June 2006. Tim
Burke/Michigan Department of Transportation/Handout via REUTERS/File
Regardless of initial predications, Duffy said, new technology
developed since the 1950s can now keep pipelines in better condition
A 1950s ENGINEERING FEAT
Michigan's debate over whether Line 5's age equates to a safety
hazard could resonate across a nation crisscrossed with decades-old
pipelines. More than half of U.S. pipelines were built in the 1950s
or 1960s, according the U.S. Department of Transportation.
When the Enbridge line reaches the Straits of Mackinac, which
connect lakes Huron and Michigan, it splits into twin 20-inch
diameter steel pipes, hailed as a feat of modern engineering when
they were installed in 1953.
Now, opponents here view them as the product of an era in which the
damage from oil spills was not well-understood.
Enbridge is still working to overcome public concern over the 2010
failure of its Line 6B pipeline, which leaked 20,000 barrels of
crude into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in one of the largest inland
spills in U.S. history.
The Straits - five miles wide and 120 feet deep - swirl with strong
currents that would disperse contaminants from an oil spill faster
than anywhere else in the Great Lakes, according to the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The line has never spilled under the Straits, but has leaked at
least eight times at other points between 1980 and October 2015,
according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety
Administration (PHMSA). None of the leaks were larger than 100
The leak that raised the most concern was a February 2012 incident
in central Michigan that environmentalists contend exposed a flaw in
the original construction.
The leak of about 20 barrels was traced to a tear in the pipeline
that was estimated to have originated at about the time the line was
constructed, according to a PHMSA report on the spill. The tear
later spread into a larger crack, causing the leak.
"The nature of the problem is a defect in the pipeline traced to the
entire construction period in 1953, so that raised a lot of doubts,"
said David Holtz, a member of environmental group Sierra Club.
Enbridge declined to comment on the leaks.
The pipeline’s age is only one factor in considering whether it
poses an environmental hazard, said Jim Feather, a former president
of the National Association of Corrosion Experts and a retired
ExxonMobil Corp engineering advisor.
Line 5 has done well in its regular in-line inspections, he said,
and has ample protections in place.
"Just because something is old does not mean it's at much greater
risk of failure," Feather said.
(Editing by David Gaffen and Brian Thevenot)
[© 2017 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2017 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.