What's next for oil pipeline under Great Lakes?

Jul 20, 2016

The hot button issue of oil pipelines continues to get a lot of attention. In the Great Lakes there’s a long running battle over a crude and natural gas line that runs through a waterway connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.


It’s known as Line 5 and it carries about 20 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids. But because it’s 63-years-old, environmental activists say the line is past its useful life and poses a threat to the lakes.

Enbridge, the Canadian company that operates the pipeline, insists that it's safe.

Enbridge's Line 5
Credit National Wildlife Federation

The U.S. government recently took steps to strengthen protections for the Great Lakes. Late last month, President Obama signed into law the PIPES Act, which was designed to help protect the fresh water source from potential oil catastrophes.

Mike Shriberg, the National Wildlife Federation's regional executive director, says the law is a strong step forward. But he adds, it “isn’t a silver bullet. This does not make the Great Lakes safe from oil spills, but this does provide an additional layers of protection.”

Some of those additional layers include the designation of the Great Lakes as a high consequence area for oil spills. That means additional requirements for inspection and monitoring. It also requires pipeline operators to have a plan for leaks in the winter season.

Still, when it comes to pipelines, environmentalists say their fears aren’t unfounded. Enbridge was responsible for a 2010 spill in the Kalamazoo River that dumped more than 800 thousand gallons of oil.

Shriberg says what's ultimately needed is a complete shutdown of Line 5.

“There are right and wrong places for oil transport in our opinion. The National Wildlife Federation does not oppose the transportation of oil, but it needs to be done in a safe manner," he says.

There’s a lot consider when discussing shutting down the line. Nate Drag of the Alliance for the Great Lakes says rail lines carrying crude pass through the Great Lakes corridor daily, triggering concern about derailments. Vessel transport poses a concern as well, he says.

"We see that as a big threat both on the open waters and then in shipping lanes that go near our drinking water sources," Drag says. "So if you have a vessel moving through Lake Erie, that’s a challenge, but if there’s a spill near either Buffalo, Cleveland or Erie -- any of our drinking water intakes -- how are we going to manage that?”  

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy says the company’s top priority is, and always has been, safety.

"If there was ever a problem at all that we saw with Line 5, then we would not be using it," Duffy says. The company constantly monitors the line and performs inspections, he says.

The Great Lakes provide fresh drinking water to more than 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Concerns about keeping the lakes safe from spills are shared on both sides of the border.

Mark Mattson of Waterkeeper Ontario says the public outlook needs to change before any real progress can occur.

“We have to start protecting the Great Lakes with much greater, much stronger laws that just say 'no' to certain types of toxic substances that could destroy the economic and the cultural future of the Great Lakes," he says.  "So, from our perspective the idea of putting bitumen in pipelines under our drinking water is just a nonstarter. I think the more Great Lakes citizens think about it, the more they’ll agree.”

For now, the issue lies with the state of Michigan. State officials have ordered an independent analysis to look at the overall risks and alternatives to the pipeline. The analysis will cost $3.6 million and Enbridge has agreed to pay for it.