Report: Pipeline laws inadequate to protect Great Lakes

May 1, 2012

A new report argues that our current laws are not strong enough to protect the Great Lakes from major oil spills. 

The National Wildlife Federation wanted to look at pipeline oversight after the massive tar sands oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010.  The spill was the result of a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy.  (The official cause of the spill is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board)

Sara Gosman is an attorney who wrote the report for the National Wildlife Federation.

"Federal laws are inadequate and states have not passed their own laws to fill in the gaps."

We’ve previously reported the spill ran through some of the highest quality wetlands in Michigan.

Sara Gosman says federal laws on oil pipelines do not protect all environmentally sensitive areas.  Instead, the laws cover something called high consequence areas.

"It’s a term of art used by the federal pipeline agency.  It’s a bunch of different areas.  For environmental purposes, it’s commercially navigable waterways, areas with threatened and endangered species and drinking water sources."

Gosman says federal government data show 44% of hazardous liquid pipelines in the country run through places that could affect high consequence areas.  She says that means companies have to do special inspections on those segments of pipelines... but not necessarily on the rest of the pipelines.

"This means 56% of hazardous liquid pipeline miles do not have to be continually assessed, have leak detection systems or be repaired on set timelines."

But she says it’s hard to find out exactly where the boundaries of these high consequence areas are.  That’s because after September 11th, the federal government started keeping the maps of these areas secret for national security reasons. 

The report identifies another problem with oversight of oil pipelines. 

Basically, pipeline companies do not have to ask the federal government for permission to site a new oil pipeline... unless the pipeline crosses an international border.  Individual states do have a say if they have laws on the books. 

In the Great Lakes region, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois require permits for new oil pipeline construction. 

But Sara Gosman says the federal government is not paying enough attention to where new oil pipelines are built.

"At the federal level, we don’t have any oversight of routing of pipelines. For natural gas pipelines they do, but not for oil."

Gosman says the federal agency that’s in charge of pipelines – the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration - is specifically not allowed to regulate siting and routing of oil pipelines. 

Sara Gosman says the result of all this – is that the Great Lakes are not adequately protected from another big oil spill.

"Pipeline spills may well happen. Everyone agrees getting to zero is the important goal. Whether we can ever get to zero... hard to know."

We requested comment on the new pipeline safety report from industry groups.  Both Enbridge and the Association of Oil Pipelines said they were not able to respond to the report by our deadline.

In January this year, President Obama signed a new pipeline safety act into law.  It doubles the maximum fine for safety violations and it authorizes more government pipeline inspectors. 

Carl Weimer is the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.  His group has been pushing for better oversight of pipelines. 

"There’s a major significant incident on a pipeline somewhere in the country about every day and a half.  If you look at just the last five years, just on hazardous liquid pipelines, there have been over 1,700 incidents spilling more than 23 million gallons of liquid into the environment."

He says the new pipeline safety act is a start.

"But many of the most important sections of that bill just required more study and did not actually correct the problems."

We asked PHMSA for comment on the new pipeline report.  The agency sent this email statement:

PHMSA’s Response:  PHMSA will take NTSB’s findings about Marshall, Michigan very seriously. PHMSA is committed to improving pipeline safety and protecting the public and the environment. Pipeline safety requires a combination of enforcement, information sharing and transparency and public education. Secretary LaHood called on pipeline operators to repair, rehabilitate and replace the highest risk lines.  PHMSA has stepped up enforcement actions and proposed pipeline safety rulemakings and issued advisories covering damage prevention programs & increased penalties, expanding the use of excess flow valves and replacing cast iron pipelines. PHMSA held pipeline safety workshops in March on leak detection and remote controlled valves.

In addition, the President’s FY 2013 budget request will support PHMSA’s focus on enforcement and accountability by providing more resources to boost PHMSA’s capability in overseeing pipeline operators, including $177 million for pipeline safety to hire more pipeline inspectors, increase coordination with the states and increase public education efforts like calling 811 before digging.

-Jeannie Layson, PHMSA’s director for Governmental, International, and Public Affairs