05.17.16

Detroit Free Press: U.S. senators want more scrutiny for Mich. oil pipeline

Peters, Stabenow say Line 5 through Straits of Mackinac may be treated as onshore -- not offshore -- pipeline and receive less scrutiny

WASHINGTON – Michigan’s U.S. senators on Tuesday sent a letter to the Obama administration raising concerns that a pair of pipelines at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac may be treated as onshore -- and not offshore -- facilities, meaning they could face less regulatory scrutiny.

U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both D-Mich., sent the letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx after learning that some pipelines in and around the Great Lakes may be treated as onshore lines rather than offshore ones, despite potentially posing a threat to lakes and rivers.

“This determination is of significant consequence,” they wrote. “For example, under the Oil Pollution Act, the liability for cleanup costs for owners or operators of onshore facilities are capped at $634 million, whereas companies operating pipelines classified as offshore facilities are required to demonstrate they have sufficient resources to pay for all cleanup costs.”

“This causes us concern when the total clean-up cost of the Enbridge oil pipeline spill (in 2010) … into the Kalamazoo River is at least $1.2 billion. In addition, spill response plans for offshore facilities must contain far more details about the response to worst case discharge scenarios,” they wrote.

Neither Foxx’s office nor the federal Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) -- which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation -- immediately responded to the letter.

Peters and Stabenow’s request for Foxx to ensure that Great Lakes pipelines face stricter scrutiny continues to raise the pressure on Enbridge’s Line 5, which primarily runs onshore, but includes the 63-year-old pair of oil and natural gas pipelines under the straits, where lakes Michigan and Huron meet, that environmentalists and others say could cause an environmental disaster if they ruptured. Enbridge, a Canadian energy giant, says they are safe.

On Monday, PHMSA was sued by the National Wildlife Federation in federal court in Detroit, with the nonprofit environmental organization alleging that the agency failed to adequately assess the potential impacts before permitting the transport of oil through the pipeline. It asked the court to stop oil moving through Line 5 “until PHMSA complies with federal law."

In Congress, meanwhile, Peters, Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, have been agitating for more regulatory oversight of pipelines like Line 5. They include adding measures to a proposed pipeline safety reauthorization bill which would require specific plans for responding to pipeline breaks in areas where ice cover may be a problem, like the Straits of Mackinac, and defining the Great Lakes as a sensitive area requiring greater protections.

Miller also has called for a study of Line 5 and for shutting it down if risks warrant. A study this year by the University of Michigan Water Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory found that up to 700 miles of coastline in the U.S and Canada could be in the spill zones -- depending on weather, water currents and the amount of oil released -- if a rupture did happen. But Enbridge has argued the study was based on “unrealistic assumptions.”

In Tuesday’s letter to Foxx, Peters and Stabenow said the Obama administration needs to establish regulatory requirements “specific to inland offshore pipeline facilities that cross the Great Lakes.”

“This action is warranted given the unique attributes of the Great Lakes and the potential for significant economic and ecological harm that would result from an oil spill,” they said. “Given the unique characteristics of Great Lakes waters, we are concerned that the response plan requirements for owners and operators of Great Lakes pipelines are not adequate to prevent, respond to, and pay for a variety of oil spill scenarios.”


By:  Todd Spangler
Source: Detroit Free Press