The most feasible way to replace 64-year-old oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac may be a new pipe inside a tunnel burrowed below the Great Lakes, or in a trench along the Straits bottom, an alternatives analysis commissioned by the State of Michigan found.
The report, released Thursday by pipeline risk management consultants Dynamic Risk, indicated the existing underwater pipelines in the Straits could operate indefinitely — a point that drew strong disagreement from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
"A specific and definite timetable to close Line 5 under the Straits should be established," Schuette said in a news release Thursday.
He also called for a legislative ban on shipping heavy crude and tar sand oil through the straits pipelines owned by Canadian energy giant Enbridge, and the creation of a state pipeline authority.
Still image from an Enbridge underwater inspection of the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac (Photo: Ed Timm)
For various reasons, Dynamic Risk's analysis found a number of frequently discussed alternatives to Line 5 unworkable — including using other, existing oil pipelines; tanker trucks, or oil barges. While shipping oil by train and constructing new pipelines away from the Great Lakes were found more feasible, they also come with astronomical costs in the billions of dollars, and could provide more costly risk than the existing Straits pipes, the analysis determined.
►Read more about Line 5:
A better idea to risk analysts was a new, 30-inch pipeline constructed in a tunnel below the Straits bottom, where any oil spill would — in theory — be contained within the tunnel and not affect the Great Lakes.
In his statement Thursday, Schuette sounded amenable to that idea, calling it a "viable option" that would "create infrastructure and construction jobs in Michigan and would allow for continuous visual inspection" of the pipe.
Line 5 ships up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day through the Upper Peninsula, then south through the Lower Peninsula to Sarnia, Ontario, and beyond. The pipeline splits into twin, 20-inch pipes underwater at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac for more than 4 miles before reconnecting into one transmission line in the Lower Peninsula.
An environmental group that has called for a shutdown of the Straits pipelines over the potential risks an oil spill poses to the Great Lakes and shoreline communities blasted the alternatives analysis.
"Dynamic Risk said when they started doing this study for the State of Michigan, they stopped working for Enbridge. This shows they were still in the cheerleading section," said David Holtz, chairman of the nonprofit Sierra Club's Michigan Chapter.
"Enbridge could have written this report. It appears to deliver to Enbridge everything Enbridge would have asked for. It's not surprising; when you hire oil industry infrastructure companies to do studies like this, what do you expect them to come up with?"
Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy, in a statement Thursday, said the company "appreciates the work of the independent contractor on the alternative analysis," but declined to comment on Schuette's statements or specific findings within the report.
"Enbridge remains committed to protecting the Great Lakes and meeting the energy needs of Michigan through the safe operation of Line 5. We have never wavered from that commitment. That’s our focus, day in, day out," Duffy said.
"We have supported the process the State of Michigan has put in place regarding the studies."
A diver working on behalf of the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation inspects the Line 5 oil pipelines at the lake bottom in the Straits of Mackinac during a July 2013 dive. (Photo: Courtesy of National Wildlife Federation)
State officials earlier this month scrapped a second commissioned study, on economic and other risks related to a worst-case-scenario oil spill on the Straits portion of Line 5, just before the draft version of the report was scheduled for release after learning an employee of Det Norske Veritas Inc. who worked on the risk analysis, then did work for Enbridge, That, state officials said, violated conflict of interest provisions in the state's contract with the company.
Schuette has the authority to order Line 5 restricted or shut down if it were determined the pipeline's operation is violating state law or the 1953 easement between the State of Michigan and Enbridge that allowed for the underwater pipes.
Environmental advocates, including the nonprofit For Love of Water, or FLOW, have argued Schuette and Gov. Rick Snyder have the ability to act on Line 5 under public trust law, protecting public waters and their use from a potentially catastrophic oil spill.
Schuette called for the creation of a Michigan Pipeline Authority, similar to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, appointed by Snyder and confirmed by the state Senate, to provide recommendations to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on behalf of Michigan residents. The authority "would work toward the decommissioning of Line 5" and other propane supply and energy issues, Schuette said.
The attorney general also called on the Legislature to ban the shipment of "heavy crude and tar sands" through the Straits pipelines. Enbridge officials have stated they only ship light crude and natural gas liquids through Line 5.
The Dynamic Risk analysis report quickly dismissed the idea of using existing pipelines away from the Great Lakes.
"There were limited options for using existing pipeline infrastructure due to limited capacity on existing assets, whether they are owned by Enbridge or other parties," the report states. "Even in cases under consideration, it was highly probable that either a new build pipeline or alternative transportation such as rail would be required to manage capacity."
The analysis also rejected tanker trucks — "the volumes through Line 5 would require one tanker truck leaving the terminal every 40 seconds, 24 hours/day, requiring 3,200 tanker trucks/day." And the use of seagoing oil tankers or barges would require a substantial upgrade of the Soo Locks and would in total create capital costs "exceeding $4.3 billion," the Dynamic Risk study found.
Three alternative routes were considered for new pipeline construction, and a 762-mile southern route, through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan was considered most feasible.
"The Southern Route is advantageous in that it could follow existing pipelines for most of the route," the study states. "However, the main drawback of this route is the congestion that may be encountered through the urban areas." The new pipeline would cost about $2 billion and would have an even higher safety risk and "monetized environmental risk" than the underwater Straits pipeline does, the consultant found.
Abandoning Line 5 could also increase costs of propane and gasoline in Michigan significantly, according to the study. While the use of rail is feasible, it comes with significant costs and would likely result in increased fuel costs for Michigan residents as a result, the study notes.
A new, 30-inch pipeline installed in a trenched crossing across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac would cost about $30 million; while a similar transmission line installed in a tunnel built under the Straits and Great Lakes would cost $150 million. Both alternatives would significantly reduce operational risks over the existing lines, Dynamic Risk stated.
The alternatives analysis can be viewed at www.mipetroleumpipelines.com. A public informational meeting will be held July 6 at Holt High School's Margaret Livensparger Theater, 5885 W Holt Road, Holt, at which Dynamic Risk will present its alternatives analysis and answer questions. Following that session, interested members of the public may submit comments in person, by mail, or online at the aforementioned website.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.