Pipeline expansion: Their gain, our risk

Phil Anderson

Enbridge Energy is expanding the capacity of the Line 5 pipeline through Wisconsin. They want to pump more volume through old pipes.

They also must re-route Line 5 around the Bad River tribal lands, where their easement was canceled. Enbridge wants to build a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac to replace the pipe lying on the lake bottom.

There are a number of reasons to be concerned about Line 5. Wisconsin will bear much of the risk but a Canadian company will get all the benefits.

Line 5 pipeline transports 22 million gallons of tar sand oil 645 miles from Superior to Sarnia, Ontario. It lies on the lake bottom at the Straits of Mackinac between upper and lower Michigan. It crosses 400 rivers, streams and wetlands while threatening several Great Lakes. In the history of the 68-year-old pipeline there have been 29 spills releasing 1.1 million gallons of toxic oil into the environment.

Producing usable fuel from Canadian tar sands is very expensive and results in a lot of toxic waste, as well as air and water pollution. The process begins by strip mining large areas of boreal forest. The mines use 2.4 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of tar sands petroleum produced.

Tar sands extraction emits three times more global warming pollution than does producing the same quantity of conventional crude oil.

Enbridge is using old existing pipe-lines to transport tar sands petroleum. But tar sands oil is thicker and more acidic than crude oil. Higher pressures and temperatures are needed to push it through pipelines.

To make it flow through a pipeline, it must be diluted with large quantities of toxic liquid chemicals. The result, called “dilbit,“ is more corrosive to pipes than crude oil. All this reduces the effectiveness of automatic leak detection devises and increases the risk of accidents and spills.

Unlike conventional oil, dilbit is heavy and difficult to clean up. It sinks to the bottom rather than floating on top of water. This was illustrated by the 2010 spill of more than 800,000 gallons of dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Five years and more than $1 billion later, the river is still contaminated. The cleanup is the longest and costliest pipeline spill in U.S. history.

There are health effects of tar sands production. Workers in the industry are at risk of exposure to many toxic chemicals as are people living near the industrial facilities. Spills, like in Kalamazoo, also put local people at risk.

When dilbit is spilled the diluting chemicals – benzene and toluene – evaporate. Exposure to these toxic vapors can cause many short and long term health problems.

The Michigan Department of Public Health says 320 people suffered adverse health effects, including cardiovascular, dermal, gastrointestinal, neurological, ocular, renal, and respiratory impacts from the Kalamazoo spill.

What about jobs and the economy? Enbridge pipelines are certainly an important business. They contribute to the economy, pay taxes and pay good wages. But the economy would not crash without them. And the overall, long-term societal costs may not be worth the benefits.

In 2017 the Minnesota Department of Commerce recommended not building a new Enbridge Line 3 pipe-line, saying the environmental risk was not worth it. Minnesota refineries were operating at capacity and did not need more oil. They recommended shutting down the existing Line 3.

The Line 5 pipeline carries oil across, not into, Wisconsin. The oil goes to a refinery in Canada and is sold to end users outside Wisconsin.

Construction crews often come from out of state. Pumping stations are automated.

In 2020 Enbridge had only 322 permanent and temporary employees, including contractors in Wisconsin. They paid only $24.9 million in wages. The company spent $85.7 million on total operating expenditures in Wisconsin (company’s own numbers).

By contrast the tourism industry generated $22.2 BILLION in sales in 2019. Tourism supported 7.7% of all jobs in Wisconsin. There are 154,000 jobs on the highly mechanized dairy farms in the state.
Enbridge pipelines are important, but hardly essential, to Wisconsin’s economy.

The key point, as I discussed last week, is that we need to be moving away from fossil fuel-based infrastructure. New investments in pipelines – the Line 5 re-route and the $500 million tunnel under the the Straits of Mackinac – will require many years of return-on-investment.

This is an incentive to delay investments in the clean energy infrastructure we really need.
The primary reason to oppose line 5 pipeline projects is the impact on climate change from the Canadian tar sands.

The extraction and refining of tar sands produces much more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil production. Many experts say using tar sand fuel is “game over” for stopping global warming.

The cost of the company’s short-term profits is our children and grandchildren living with the results of climate change.

Currently Line 5 is temporarily shut down. Last November Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked the Enbridge easement for Line 5 because of condition issues with the pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

This temporary safety measure will be opposed by the company.

The best, permanent solution is for the tar sands oil to stay in the ground! The bottom line is our lakes, rivers, and climate are too valuable to sacrifice for corporate profits.

We need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, conserve energy and switch to renewable energy resources instead of expanding pipelines.

To learn more see:

• Line 5 issues, WI Sierra Club, sierraclub.org/wisconsin/line-5
• Pipelines in Wisconsin, WI Sierra Club, sierraclub.org/wisconsin/stopping-tar-sands-oil-through-wisconsin
• Health effects WI Environmental Health Network wehnonline.org/pipelines
• “All Risk, No Reward: The Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Pipeline” https://content.sierraclub.org/creative-archive/sites/content.sierraclub.org.creative-archive/files/pdfs/0679-AlbertaClipperReport_09_web_0.pdf
• Tar Sands Safety, National Resources Defense Council http://nrdc.org/blogs/aswift/tar_sands_pipeline_safety_risk.html
• Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force Report (2015) michigan.gov/documents/deq/M_Petroleum_Pipeline_Report_2015-10_reducedsize_494297_7.pdf
• The Facts About Canadian Oil oilfacts.ca from Environmental Defense Canada