On November 13, 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered Enbridge Pipeline Company to shut down Line 5, its oil pipeline that crosses the Straights of Mackinac, the waterway connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. This would have halted the flow of oil within 180 days. A disruption of the pipeline system would adversely affect the flow of crude oil feedstocks to ten regional refineries, including those in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the US and Ontario and Quebec in Canada. It would result in a daily shortage of over 14 million gallons of gasoline and other transportation fuels, leaving oil companies scrambling to find other sources of supply and pushing fuel prices sharply higher. It also would lead to a significant propane shortage for consumers in northern Michigan.
The reason Governor Whitmer has given for her action is that she thinks Enbridge cannot be trusted to safely operate the pipeline and that it poses a risk of an oil spill at the Straights of Mackinaw that would gravely harm the Great Lakes. She is claiming that the easement granted by Michigan to Enbridge in 1953 was done in error and should now be revoked.
In response to Governor Whitmer’s order to shut down the line, Enbridge filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan seeking an injunction, based on the grounds that the attempt to shut down the line interferes with the U.S. federal government’s regulation of pipeline safety and foreign commerce in violation of federal laws and the U.S. Constitution. The Michigan Attorney General applied to have this matter dealt with instead by a Michigan court.
The media has covered this issue with its usual lack of diligence, focusing mostly on the support for Governor Whitmer’s action by various environmental groups, and failing to examine the underlying facts. What are they?
Line 5, in fact, comprises two 20-inch-diameter parallel pipelines Enbridge has operated since 1953 (i.e. for 68 years). It transports up to 540,000 barrels per day of light synthetic crude oil and also natural gas liquids that are refined into propane. It was built by the Bechtel Corporation to meet extraordinary design and construction standards, and it features an exceptional and highly durable enamel coating and pipe walls that are three times as thick (a minimum of 0.812 inches) as those of a typical pipeline. It has never experienced a leak in its entire period of operations.
Enbridge monitors the pipeline on a 24/7 basis, using both specially trained staff and sophisticated computer monitoring systems. It also carries out regular inspections of the line, using inline tools, expert divers, and remote operating vehicles going above and beyond regulatory requirements.
In 2019, there was an anchor strike to the pipeline due to improper actions by a ship. The line sustained damage, but it did not leak. Enbridge has since then developed plans and procedures to reduce the risks of that type of incident recurring. There is no current threat. It is not as though the pipeline were just lying on the river bottom. Federal regulations require that all pipelines installed in a navigable river must have a minimum cover of 48 inches of soil between the top of the pipe and the underwater natural bottom.
The public attention to this incident was magnified by a previous actual leak by Enbridge’s Line 6B in 2010. It involved an entirely different pipeline whose damage was completely rectified by the company at great expense to the satisfaction of all parties.
Enbridge, sensitive to Michigan concerns, reached an agreement in 2018 with then-Governor Rick Snyder for the construction of a $500 million tunnel to house Line 5 beneath the straights, but opposition by environmental groups in the courts has upheld the implementation of the tunnel agreement. Governor Whitmer now rejects that option out of hand, arguing that the threat posed by Line 5 is imminent.
The Safety Record of the US Oil Pipeline Industry
If one were completely unaware of the energy infrastructure in North America and listened only to the protests being made, one might suppose that there are very few oil pipelines now operating and that the technology for building and operating them safely was in its infancy. Every major new oil pipeline project proposed in North America over the last decade has faced significant opposition from environmental groups. These groups claim incessantly that the construction and operation of pipelines creates unacceptable risks for rivers, lakes, wetlands and underground aquifers. Seldom, if ever, does the mainstream news media ever examine the facts behind these claims or dare to challenge them. Thus is borne a new set of myths, designed to be repeated at each demonstration and used to pressure politicians into making poor decisions.
In fact, oil pipelines have been operating in North America since the 1870’s, for over 150 years. Virtually every one of the major pipeline systems crosses dozens, if not hundreds, of waterways and areas where there are underground aquifers. For its entire history, the oil pipeline industry has been coping with the engineering problems of how to build and operate pipelines so as to minimize the potential adverse effects on waterways.
There are now over 83,000 miles of crude oil pipelines and another 63,000 miles of refined oil product pipelines. According to the joint American Petroleum Institute (API)-Association of Oil Pipelines 2020 Annual Pipeline (AOPL) Safety Performance Report and Strategic Plan, in 2020 there were 165 releases from onshore crude oil pipelines along pipeline rights of way, down from 204 releases in 2016. Eighty-five per cent of the releases were fewer than 50 barrels and 60% were fewer than five barrels . Over the five-year period 2016 to 2020, about 227,000 oil barrels were released. In 2020 alone, pipelines transported 22.8 billion barrels. So, 99.9994% of the oil transported by pipeline in the United States is delivered safely without leaks every year.
Line 5’s Safety Record
The Enbridge Line 5 pipeline has operated for about 65 years. The U.S. National Wildlife Federation claims that, throughout that entire period, about 30 spills have resulted in about 1.13 million gallons of oil being spilled. Note the use of gallons as a measure. There are 42 U.S. gallons in a barrel, so the total amount spilled in history was just under 27,000 barrels. Most of that was decades ago. Over the past fifteen years, there have been three incidents that resulted in a total of 21 barrels being released, all of which were recovered. There has never been a spill at the Straights.
Readers of this article may be struck by the difference between the message conveyed by pipeline opponents and the facts presented here. The messages of pipeline opponents are stark, cataclysmic, emotional and simple. Reality is far more complex and multi-faceted. According to the opponents, there are the good guys (allegedly those who oppose all development to “save the planet”) and the bad guys (large industry seeking to make huge profits from producing and selling oil with no concern for the environment or people’s health).
The reality is that millions of people depend upon the supply of refined oil products for transportation, industrial production, petrochemicals and the thousands of products and services that people use in our modern industrialized society. Further, hundreds of thousands of people work very hard to ensure that the transportation of crude oil and refined oil products moves across our lands with the utmost care given to oil spill prevention, preparedness and response. Comprehensive liability, compensation and governance regimes are in place to make sure that companies have a strong financial incentive to avoid spills and to clean them up as quickly and thoroughly as possible if they do occur. This does not ensure that oil spills never happen; that would be impossible. The real “good guys” are those who do their utmost to reduce to a minimum the risks of spills, while ensuring that consumers’ energy needs are met.
Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline has a remarkably good record of safe operation that does not in any way justify shutting down critically needed energy infrastructure. Fear mongering is an effective propaganda tool, but it should not be allowed to cloud the judgment of governments or the public. So to answer the question posed in the title of this article the answer must be YES.
Note: Robert Lyman is an economist having served 38 years in that capacity with the Canadian government.