If opponents of incumbent Congressman Fred Upton (R-Mich) have their way, a natural gas pipeline leak that displaced 500 people earlier this week could take center stage in one of the nation's most heated Congressional races.
The contest for Michigan's 6th congressional district pins fossil fuel champion Upton, a 14-term U.S. Representative and chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, against Democratic newcomer Paul Clements, a political science professor at Western Michigan University and an advocate for climate action.
Early Tuesday morning, residents of Benton Charter Township, in southwestern Michigan, were evacuated from their homes after a natural gas pipeline operated by energy giant TransCanada ruptured. They were allowed to return within 12 hours of the leak, but there are still questions about how much natural gas escaped, and whether nearby soil and water were contaminated.
The leak happened in a part of Michigan that is home to several pipelines carrying fossil fuels from Canada to Texas. It occurred just 80 miles west of the largest inland oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, the 1-million barrel tar sands crude leak along the Kalamazoo River in 2010.
"What happened in Benton Township underscores growing concern in the region about pipeline safety," Clements said. "Along with the Kalamazoo spill, it will be a part of the conversation this election."
RL Miller, founder of the SuperPac Climate Hawks Vote, said her group plans to use the natural gas leak to educate voters about Upton's "shoddy environmental record and fossil fuel ties." Climate Hawks Vote was created to help get climate-conscious politicians elected. It endorsed Clements earlier this month, calling him a "true climate champion."
"Rep. Upton is friendly with TransCanada," the company that operates the natural gas pipeline that ruptured this week, said Miller. "They are also the company behind the Keystone XL, a project Upton really wants to see approved. He won't do anything to offend TransCanada, meaning he isn't going to do anything about this leak or pipeline safety. People are angry and they want to see him gone."
Once a moderate on environmental issues, Upton has been pushing a pro-fossil fuel agenda since the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010. He challenged the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and is frequently one of the top recipients of oil, gas, and coal campaign contributions. He's received $177,450 from oil and gas companies so far this election season, according to the campaign finance website OpenSecrets.org. Upton's campaign website names him "a champion of the Keystone XL pipeline," a project that could send 800,000 barrels of carbon-heavy crude oil from Alberta to refineries in Texas. The Upton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
With climate change wreaking havoc on the health of the nearby Great Lakes and the cleanup of the Kalamazoo spill still going on four years later, experts say Upton's pro-fossil fuel agenda is wearing thin with his constituents.
The congressman has generally faced an easy road to reelection in his 27-year career. He's won 14 terms in office with just one close call for his seat: the 2010 primary when he almost lost to a Tea Party candidate. But he doesn't have as much support in the district as he once did, said Barry Rabe, an expert on the politics of climate change at the University of Michigan. Upton won his seat by only 12 points in 2012—his tightest margin to date—and the pipeline leakage issue has been "extremely salient" in western Michigan since the Kalamazoo spill.
"All signs indicate that this is still Upton's race to lose," Rabe said. "He has incumbency with name recognition, deep pockets and years of constituency service." But the natural gas leak earlier this week "underscores growing concerns. For Clements, this may give him an expanded opportunity to raise and advance this issue."
Clements told InsideClimate News he plans to highlight Upton's strong ties to the fossil fuel industry in his campaign, but not in the context of the recent natural gas leak. "However, that could change in the days and weeks ahead," Clements said.
Residents near the TransCanada leak said they heard a loud boom at 2 a.m. on Tuesday. Emergency responders evacuated approximately 500 people from homes within a one-mile radius of the rupture. No injuries were reported. Police waited until air pollution monitors detected only low levels of gas before letting people return home. However, one farmer just a quarter-mile from the blast site told a local news station he was warned that his three acres of potato crop may be contaminated.
TransCanada said the pipeline that ruptured was 24-30 inches in diameter, but the company hasn't released an estimate for how much gas escaped or an explanation of what happened. The company didn't respond to a request for comment.
The Michigan leak marks TransCanada's third pipeline rupture this year, according to the social action organization Council of Canadians.