MACKINAW CITY, Mich. — Until a few years ago, Chris Shepler saw only beauty when he gazed out his office windows at the picturesque pier and the famed, majestic Mackinac Bridge looming in the distance. The Shepler name has adorned ferry boats crisscrossing those waters since 1945, and he was born perhaps 30 miles from this quay, so he figured he knew just about everything important there was to know about the Straits of Mackinac.
Now, though, it’s hard to look without imagining what, until 2011, he didn’t know lurked below: Two 62-year-old oil pipelines running parallel to the bridge for 4.5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac, the aquatic, turbulent seam where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. Each day, some 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids roar through en route from the shale oil wells of Alberta to refineries in Detroit and Sarnia, Ontario.
The pipes, known as Line 5, are 20 inches in diameter, with one-inch-thick walls. On that line, they have never had a spill, a rupture or, to hear its Calgary, Alberta-based owner Enbridge tell it, even a repair. It also wasn’t a secret: The state of Michigan granted the underwater easement in 1953, and a few old-timers here even remember helping build and install it.
Nonetheless, Line 5’s existence was all but forgotten until another Enbridge pipe, Line 6B, burst open in July 2010 and over 18 hours spewed as much as 1.1 million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River near the central Michigan town of Marshall. In the wake of that — the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history — and with the fight raging over TransCanada’s proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline across the Great Plains, environmentalists looked around to see where else Enbridge was moving oil in the Wolverine State. To the surprise of many, they realized that it operated a major line through one of the world’s most sensitive freshwater areas.
“I don’t know why it wasn’t an issue before, but I didn’t know about it,” said Shepler, 53, whose company runs more than 50 routes a day during the summer when thousands of tourists swarm the region to visit Mackinac Island and its environs. “But now, knowing that that pipe is there, it is a concern of businesses and people who live on the water and in the state. Not for one minute do I think that pipeline should stay in there. I mean it’s 62 years old, so what’s the contingency plan? I’m not an engineer, but things don’t last forever.”
In fact, in perhaps the most damning moment in the controversy so far, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a conservative seen as a GOP front-runner for governor in 2018, seemed to condemn Line 5 in comments when he released a report in July from the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force he chairs.
“You wouldn’t site, and you wouldn’t build and construct pipelines underneath the Straits today,” Schuette said. “And so, if you wouldn’t do it today, how many more tomorrows will the pipelines be operational?”
Still, Enbridge has received a reprieve because Schuette has declined to order an immediate shutdown, as he could under the terms of the state’s agreement with Enbridge regarding the easement. Instead, he established a Pipeline Safety Advisory Board to study all of the state’s spaghetti tangle of pipelines and make recommendations as to what to do. That committee, which has met twice, is ordering up a comprehensive report on how Enbridge would transport the oil and gas in Line 5 to refineries if it could no longer pump it through the Straits.
The company itself already has an answer: It would be expensive, dirty and, ultimately, riskier to the environment than continuing to use, monitor and maintain Line 5. They’d need to send the petroleum via truck, train and perhaps tanker ship across the Great Lakes, all modes of transport that have much bleaker safety records than pipelines, Enbridge publicist Jason Manshum said.
The pipeline company transports an average of 2.2 million barrels a day — including more than half of all U.S.-bound Canadian production, or 15 percent of all U.S. crude imports — through 16,892 miles of pipelines across North America. Sometimes those pipelines leak. The Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration says that over the past decade a series of Enbridge pipeline leaks in the United States spilled 44,475 barrels, costing the company $928 million in clean up expenses.
Nonetheless, after Keystone XL’s rejection, Enbridge is working to expand existing pipelines, which would draw less attention and would not be subjected to the same permitting burdens. The company said it wants to spend $7 billion to double Line 3 capacity into Wisconsin.
“If you go back to look at why Line 5 was built in the first place, it was designed to keep crude oil off the Great Lakes,” Manshum said in an interview in a room filled with packed boxes the second day after the company opened an office in Michigan’s capital, Lansing. “Prior to 1953, the way crude oil got to refineries in the lower part of Michigan? It went on tankers across Lake Superior, down Huron to Detroit. This was to be the safer and more efficient mechanism to move crude oil.”
And, indeed, it operated without any public concern or even awareness until Enbridge’s Line 6B disaster. Mechanical failure — a six-foot pipe break — was compounded by human error as operatives in Enbridge’s Edmonton offices ignored alarms. Rather than immediately shut down the line, Michigan-based engineers increased the oil flow thinking that they could push through a pipe blockage. Instead, they created a 35-mile oil slick that required neighborhood evacuations and took more than four years to clean up. Enbridge spent nearly $1 billion on the cleanup and was fined $3.7 million by the Transportation Department for some two-dozen safety violations.
The Line 6B spill “was truly one of the most humbling and sobering experiences of our company’s history, without a doubt,” Manshum said. “We pride ourselves on our safety record and had a very good safety record in our industry. The Marshall, Michigan, incident impacted our company to the very core. We thought we were good, but clearly we need to do better.”
By most accounts, the company has made some strides on Line 5. A new system is in place that would shut and evacuate the pipes in the event of any alarm until a full manual inspection could take place. The company now regularly uses “pipeline inspection gadgets,” a.k.a. PIGs, to troll through the interior of the lines to look for dents, cracks and corrosion, and they have means of measuring the pipe’s wall thickness “down to the tenth or 100th of a millimeter,” Manshum said. “We will notice any amount of change over time. Our data indicates Line 5 is in as good a shape as it was in 1953.” (Pipeline companies are required by federal law to use PIGs for surveillance.)
Shepler and others say that even if they took Enbridge at their word, the risk is too severe given that 40 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. Also, the currents in the Straits are unusually complex, with water at the surface often moving in a different direction than that down below — and both at speeds that rival that of water going over Niagara Falls, according to Eric Anderson, a physical scientist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Distribution models show any oil spill from Line 5 would spread at shocking speed throughout the lakes even if cleanup were as prompt and thorough as Enbridge says it would be.
“As far as how bad things could be, you have an area that can disperse something very rapidly in multiple directions, making it very hard to not only respond but also predict exactly how that’s going to play out,” said Anderson, who would advise the Coast Guard in the event of a spill.
The Coast Guard, Enbridge and others have run a major cleanup drills in recent years, and the company has impressed Coast Guard incident management adviser Jerry Popiel. “They’ve done a lot of work on the preparedness side, they’re not the same company they were in 2010,” said Popiel, who oversees response for an eight-state Midwest region but listed Line 5 as his top concern. “They bring their A game. They hire excellent contractors who know what they’re doing. They’re writing plans to identify environmentally sensitive areas. In response mode, they’ve shown us they’ve gotten a lot better at this.”
Yet “response” implies a spill has occurred, and many stakeholders don’t want to allow for the chance of that. The National Wildlife Federation in October filed suit against the Transportation Department for not forcing Enbridge to halt oil movement, saying the government is not enforcing a law passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill requiring “worst-case” disaster plans to be on file. Manshum said Enbridge, which is not a party in the suit, has disaster plans that it has provided to government agencies.
“If it’s a high risk, you have to look at worst-case scenario, not best-case scenario,” said Jim Olson, co-founder of For Love of Water, or FLOW, one of the northern Michigan groups battling Line 5. “You have to assume that the shutting-down system does not work, what does it look like, what is the response? There’s human error, there’s inadequacy of the design of the equipment to begin with, malfunctions under certain conditions like there was in the Santa Barbara spill last year. Enbridge’s position is that it’s safe and don’t worry about it. We can’t take those chances.”
The question has united an unlikely set of allies, from a myriad of national and local environmental groups to conservative Republicans such as Shepler to the region’s many Native American tribes. Over Labor Day weekend, when 40,000 people come north for the annual Mackinac Bridge Walk, dozens of protesters paddled in kayaks and canoes to either side of the span with signs urging Enbridge, Michigan or the federal government to shut down Line 5. Rather than be irked by the tourist-unfriendly demonstration, Shepler seemed appreciative. “I don’t think these were protests per se, but awareness activities they’ve done,” he said of various similar events. “It’s a huge concern right now for the citizens of northern Michigan.”
Shepler, who is on the 15-person Pipeline Safety Advisory Board along with Popiel, Schuette and an executive from Enbridge, is unimpressed by the company thus far in part because he was never contacted in advance of last summer’s oil-spill response drill. “We have boats everywhere,” he said. “No one called us. Have they really thought this through, or is this pomp and circumstance?”
Another skeptic is Rich Bergmann, owner of the Lake Charlevoix Brewing Co., which in November hosted a standing-room-only showing of “Oil and Water,” a 17-minute film by District-based documentarian Spencer Chumbley about the dangers of Line 5. Much of Enbridge’s actions, such as opening its lobbying office in Lansing and airing “lavish TV ads telling about what a great company they are” is deceptive or besides the point, Bergmann said.
“They’re spending a lot on PR and advertising, talking about how necessary pipelines are and how important they are to the strength of America, and I don’t disagree with any of those points,” said Bergmann, whose company, like the others in the booming microbrew region, relies on Great Lakes water. “But the point is, they make billions. They need to reroute this because they cannot prove to us they can continue to safely pump oil through this area.”
For their part, Enbridge seems poised to fight for Line 5 as if the company’s survival depends upon it. “It’s not good business to have release and rupture from cost perspective but also from a reputation perspective,” Manshum said. “Every day we’re out repairing pipelines and shutting down due to release, we’re not moving product. It’s in our interest as a pipeline company to keep it in the pipe.”
Friess is a freelance writer in Michigan.