Enbridge must start planning for life after Line 5

Flowing beneath the Straits of Mackinac each day is 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid natural gas.

The Straits, which separates the two peninsulas of our fine state, is the confluence of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, two of the five Great Lakes, which collectively make up one-fifth of the entire world’s freshwater supply, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The oil and natural gas is funneled through the Straits via two 20-inch pipes at the lake bottom, comprising a nearly 5-mile-long section of Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5, which runs underground from Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan and on to Sarnia, Ontario.

The state of Michigan last week released a draft version of a report identifying six alternative scenarios to moving oil across the state.

Some of those, like transporting oil through the Straits by barge or truck, are not feasible, in our view, considering the volume of petroleum that goes through the pipeline. Others, such as maintaining the existing operation or digging a tunnel beneath the lake bottom and laying a new pipeline through the Straits, do little to avoid the potential problem as it currently exists.

That report can be viewed online at the Michigan Petroleum Pipelines website, mipetroleumpipelines.com, where comments can also be submitted via email after the 30-day public commenting period opens Thursday. Comments may also be mailed during the same time period to Michigan Agency for Energy, Attn: Line 5 Pipeline Study, P.O. Box 30221, 7109 W. Saginaw Highway, Lansing, MI 48917.

We encourage you to look through the report for yourself and let state officials know your opinions.

The best play for Enbridge is to start looking for ways to move its petroleum that do not include potential exposure to the Great Lakes. That may mean finding capacity in other pipelines. The point is, start planning to retire Line 5 now, and not while a historic mess is being cleaned up in the Straits.

Enbridge may have to spend some money to achieve that, but what would it cost to remedy another scenario, one in which Line 5 fails and releases petroleum into the Great Lakes?

You don’t have to look very far back in history to see other oil spill disasters. In 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska, spilling around 11 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Alaska and costing Exxon a reported $2.1 billion to clean up the mess — not to mention the trickle down impact on communities and wildlife.

In 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico reportedly cost the company $62 billion on efforts to take care of the roughly 210 million gallons that spilled there.

Also in 2010, though much closer to home, the Kalamazoo River downstate was the victim when a pipeline operated by Enbridge failed and unloaded around 1.2 million gallons of oil, costing the company a reported $1.2 billion.

Line 5, should it fail for any reason, would be an ecological disaster of the first order, wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes and the many coastal communities, fishery and tourist trade that rely on those waters remaining pristine.

Enbridge tells us the 64-year-old pipe has passed pressure testing and is fit for service. We don’t disbelieve that. In fact, we are certain the line is fine and will remain fine — until it isn’t. At that point, matters could become untenable in a hurry.

Line 5 was put into service decades ago, at a time when environmental sensitivity and knowledge either didn’t exist or didn’t exist in any significant degree.

We find it hard to believe that the Michigan Department of Environtal Quality and/or the EPA would even allow the installation of Line 5 today.

We have been assured by Enbridge that if the line has a break, they have a way to shut it down immediately. We hope that’s true but we also believe Enbridge should realize that it is only a matter of time before they have to deal with the future of Line 5.

We encourage Enbridge to be proactive and work with Schuette and others to come up with a plan going forward to address concerns about Great Lakes contamination that are being expressed.