Gov. Rejects Shutdown of Great Lakes Oil Pipeline That's Losing Its Coating

Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board had reviewed the 65-year-old Enbridge Line 5 crude oil pipeline and recommended shutting it down immediately.

Straits of Mackinac. Credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The Straits of Mackinac connect Lakes Michigan and Huron. Enbridge's Line 5 crude oil pipeline runs along the lake floor and has been losing sections of its protective anti-corrosion coating. Credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has rejected the recommendation of an independent pipeline safety advisory board to shut down an aging crude oil pipeline that has been losing sections of its protective coating where it crosses beneath the Great Lakes.

The board called for an immediate, temporary shutdown of the 65-year-old pipeline in December after Enbridge, the Canadian company that owns and operates the line, notified the board that sections of anti-corrosion coating had come off the dual pipelines that run along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. Line 5 has had more than two dozen leaks over its lifetime, and there have been concerns about the pipeline's outer coatings, but as recently as March, company officials said the pipelines were in as good of condition as the day they were installed.

"Line 5 is violating its easement right now because the coating for the pipeline is not intact," said Mike Shriberg, a member of the board and the executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Office. "They have bare metal exposed to water, and they can't tell us anything significant about the extent of the problem."

Snyder downplayed any imminent threat in his January 26 letter to the board.

"While the coating gaps remain of key concern and must be addressed, review of the recent hydrotest results of Line 5 through the Straits indicate there is not a risk of imminent failure, and that test was done when these coating gaps existed," Snyder wrote.

Snyder: Enbridge Won't Want Long Shutdown

The governor stated that further inspections and repairs could not be completed until summer because of ice on the Straits, which connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. He also said: "It is highly unlikely that Enbridge would agree to voluntarily suspend pipeline operation for months pending further external coating inspections and repairs."

Shriberg said the risk of a potential spill outweighs other considerations.

"The recommendations that came from his advisory board were based on science and technology, meaning what capacity we have to actually recover an oil spill," he said. "The governor's response said 'this is the best deal that I could get from Enbridge.' His action was based on politics."

Temporary Safety Measures

Enbridge reached an agreement with the state in November on a number of safety measures, including temporarily shutting down Line 5 during severe storms in the Straits of Mackinac.

"The agreement signed between Enbridge and the State of Michigan lays out a positive path forward for Enbridge to demonstrate its commitment to continuing to drive down risk and in doing the right thing to serve Michigan and protect the waters of the Great Lakes," Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said in a written statement. "We will continue to focus on implementing the agreement and on safely delivering the energy that Michigan businesses and residents rely on."

The board had also recommended broadening the definition of what constitutes a severe storm and conducting a more robust study of alternatives to Line 5, but the governor rejected those recommendations, as well.

Line 5 Risk Assessment Due This Summer

Consultants hired by the state offered alternatives to the existing pipeline in a report released in November, including replacing the line, using other existing lines, or constructing a new pipeline elsewhere in the region. A separate, independent risk analysis of the existing pipeline, commissioned by the state and funded by Enbridge, should be completed this summer.   

Snyder said he plans to make a final decision on the future of Line 5 by the end of September, after the new risk analysis is completed.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican running for governor (Snyder is serving his final term), has called for closing the section of the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

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