The State’s Orphaned Line 5 Studies

There’s really no better way to describe the mess that is the state’s process for determining the fate of Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac than to say it is screwed up beyond all recognition or repair. Or FUBAR if you are familiar with the military’s more direct slang for screwed up.

A $756,000 Line 5 study lies abandoned by state officials who say they were counting on it to make a strong case against Enbridge’s claims its 64-year-old pipelines present little risk to the Great Lakes. The risk assessment analysis—child of a state process and midwifed with oil industry money and influence—is now orphaned.  Its  twin sister—a state alternatives study riddled with errors, omissions and bias—is on life support. Recall that we were told a year ago these studies would give the state what it needed to make a decision about Line 5’s future. It now appears that any decision about Line 5 may be months if not years away.  Meanwhile, concerns grow about the pipeline’s condition.

Moreover, since problems with both studies are linked to ties with Enbridge one wonders if it wasn’t Enbridge’s plan all along to sabotage them.  Delay is Enbridge’s friend. The Canadian pipeline transport giant’s $1.5 billion in earnings the first six months of this year include many millions from Line 5 oil being carried across the Straits through Michigan to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario. It’s no accident that Enbridge’s strongest Line 5 support outside the oil industry comes from Canadian energy and government officials.

So how did we get here? The risk assessment died just days before its scheduled release in late June and was near completion when state officials discovered that a key consultant hired to do worst-case oil spill modeling on Line 5 for the state was doing the same thing for Enbridge at the same time.    That conflict of interest prompted officials to scuttle the risk assessment entirely, refusing to even take delivery on the final product. They are now sitting on $756,000 of Enbridge’s money intended to pay for the risk assessment and they claim to be trying to figure out what to do next.  State officials say whatever worst-case oil spill projections would come from the tainted study likely benefit Enbridge’s interests. But the reality is we may never know unless the state takes possession of the study and releases it to the public.  And there’s at least some evidence from a preliminary assessment presented at a May workshop that the risk assessment may have been on track to determine that a worst-case oil spill could potentially impact up to 500 miles of Great Lakes shoreline.  That’s closer to what a University of Michigan study concluded and a much bigger spill footprint than in the much-criticized draft alternatives study.

What also raises questions is that a key document requested by the state’s contractor, DNV, called a Facilities Response Plan, was heavily redacted by Enbridge.  The Facilities Response Plan is Enbridge’s detailed oil spill response plan filed with the federal government and generally not made available to the public.  It was to be used by DNV in determining the effectiveness of oil spill recovery in a worst-case scenario and essential for figuring out the extent of environmental and economic damage from a big spill.   DNV, in an email flagged high priority, told state officials on June 16 the censored Enbridge Facility Response Plan was basically useless.   It was four days later on June 20 that the state announced it was cancelling the risk assessment study.  Just a coincidence?  Again, we may never know.

A second study that examined alternatives to Line 5 didn’t bother doing the required worst-case oil spill analysis and even state officials who hired the firm sharply criticized the report’s failures. The fact that the lead company that authored the alternatives study has business ties to Enbridge bolstered the case made by Sierra Club and others that it was clearly biased in favor of Enbridge’s interests.  Pages of errors and omissions in the study were submitted during the state’s public comment period that ended Friday, including from the state agencies themselves.

So what happens now?  That was a question I posed yesterday during a meeting with Michigan Energy Agency Director Valerie Brader and Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether. Brader and Grether, who co-chair the governor’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, are in charge of the Line 5 studies. Neither, it turns out, have a plan for how to complete the study process. And there’s no framework or clearly identifiable path to reaching a decision on Line 5.  With just 17 months left of a Snyder administration I asked Grether and Brader if there’s any urgency to getting the Line 5 job finished before they move on. “We have to do this as quickly as possible,” said Brader.

It might seem to some that Snyder and Schuette are running out the clock and hoping that each day that passes isn’t one day closer to being accountable for an economic and environmental disaster in the Straits on their watch.  It’s been two years since Snyder and Schuette’s pipeline task force said the state should look at alternatives to the most dangerous oil pipelines in the Great Lakes basin. It’s been seven years since another Enbridge pipeline spilled 1.2 million gallons of oil along the Kalamazoo River and attention began focusing on the threat to the Great Lakes from Line 5.

The sole identifiable decision and only legally enforceable action being taken by the state involves whether the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality gives Enbridge a permit to install 22 new anchors along Line 5 in the Straits, several of them in areas where they will shore up a section of the pipeline that is bent and potentially damaged. Local residents and environmental groups want the DEQ to condition the permit on a comprehensive look at Line 5 throughout the nearly 5-mile path it takes in the Straits.

A big reason for the request is that for years—perhaps decades—the pipelines lacked proper supports. Did the massively powerful Straits currents and shifting, eroding lake bottom jar and compromise the pipelines? It seems likely and at least one independent engineer—Dr. Ed Timm—is convinced it has. Timm and others submitted convincing testimony during the July 25 permit hearing in St. Ignace but it isn’t clear the DEQ is listening. Most are betting the DEQ will give Enbridge what it wants–a blank check to not only install anchors but ensure they strengthen their claims about Line 5’s safety and lay the groundwork for increased oil transport through the Straits.

What many fear is that the state’s troubled Line 5 study process will grind on until 2017 becomes the 2018 election year for governor and attorney general and then 2018 turns to 2019 and we have a new governor and attorney general who may want to start the whole process all over again.   All of the study problems and the delays benefit Enbridge, of course. They plan to continue pumping oil through their Straits pipelines and making money indefinitely—that is until the pipelines rupture.