Traverse City Record-Eagle: Proposed regulations would impact Line 5

TRAVERSE CITY — Michigan's U.S. Senators are championing legislation that would enact stricter standards for operators of pipelines that run under the Great Lakes, and create new authority to shut them down if operators don't meet those benchmarks.

Operators, namely Enbridge, would have to prove they have the financial means to clean up a spill, said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation could shut down pipelines if a company can't meet that standard, if they violate operating agreements or if the capabilities to respond to a spill are inadequate.

Federal rules treat pipelines under the Great Lakes as on-shore, Peters said. His bill would create a special classification for such pipelines that would hold them to the same standards as offshore pipelines.

"Those of us who live along the Great Lakes know we basically live on inland seas, and to consider Great Lakes pipelines as anything other than offshore does not make any sense," he said.

That change would mean Enbridge and other pipeline operators' liability for cleanup costs and economic damages would no longer be capped at $634 million, as is the current case, Peters said. Offshore pipeline operators must pay that cost in full, plus up to $133 million in economic damages.

It's part of a package of bills Peters and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, announced Wednesday. The Senate's Commerce Committee has approved an amendment to the U.S. Coast Guard Reauthorization Act to create a research center focused on how to clean up oil spills on freshwater versus salt water, Peters said.

Pipeline operators would have to submit their cleanup response plans to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency before a spill occurs under one of Stabenow's proposals, she said. Neither are currently required to review such plans, and Stabenow wants the agency and military branch to be involved on the front end.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recommended as much after the 2010 rupture of Enbridge's pipeline near Marshall that dumped about 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, Stabenow said.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also would be required to publish that cleanup response plan and other information online, Stabenow said. The agency collects a great deal of information that it doesn't post online, and people have to "jump through several steps and hoops" to get it.

"For us, the bottom line of all of this is to make sure that from the federal level everything is being done to focus on safety and to make sure that the public has everything they need to know about these plans," she said.

Peters acknowledged the changes would have a significant impact on the economics of operating Line 5. The bills also would impact another Enbridge-owned line under the St. Clair River.

Companies that can't pay for a spill their pipeline may cause shouldn't expect taxpayers to foot the bill, Stabenow said.

Messages left for Enbridge's representatives weren't returned Wednesday afternoon. Company spokespeople previously vouched for Line 5's safety and noted its importance to the Upper Peninsula's propane supply chain.

State-level lawmakers would still have authority over pipeline easements and operating agreements, Stabenow said.

For Love Of Water has advocated for the shut-down of Line 5, and the nonprofit's Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said the bills take a common-sense approach to planning for oil spills before they happen.

Christine Crissman, Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay executive director, said she needs to find out more about the bills but likes what she's heard so far.

"I think the gaps that we've been watching in the current process are identified in this legislation," she said.

Both senators were optimistic about the bills' chances of drawing bipartisan support; committee members unanimously approved Peters' amendment to the Coast Guard bill, he said.

But any new regulations could face strong political headwinds as Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump have made a mission of eliminating or pushing back rules they view as unnecessary constraints on economic growth.

Trump in his second week in office signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to eliminate two regulations for every new one they adopt.

But Kirkwood and others hope the legislation will gain bi-partisan support.

"Given the importance of the Great Lakes, this legislation ... is designed to protect our greatest natural resource that is integral to our economy, to our way of life, our very existence," Kirkwood said.

By:  Jordan Travis
Source: Traverse City Record-Eagle