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Straight talk about the Straits pipeline? Not so much

Jul 15, 2015

UPDATED AT 1:41 pm ON 7/15/15 

Here’s something President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Snyder have in common: Both were born years after a pipeline to deliver oil was installed under the Straits of Mackinac.

That pipeline, more than four miles of which is actually at the bottom of the lakes, is now 61 years old. Enbridge, the Canadian firm that owns it, pumps as much as 540,000 gallons of oil and liquid natural gas through it every day.

According to Enbridge, it has never leaked. But as far as I know, the much younger Enbridge pipeline in the Kalamazoo River never leaked either until it ruptured five years ago, making a mess that took four years and a billion dollars to clean up.

If the pipeline under the Straits were to rupture, it could cause the greatest environmental disaster in our history, potentially ruining Lakes Michigan and Superior.

Yesterday , a state environmental task force led by Attorney General Bill Schuette and Dan Wyant, who heads Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, released a report on the pipeline, at a press conference in which they sounded strong.

They made a bunch of recommendations, including that Enbridge should be banned from shipping heavy crude and tar sands oil through the pipeline. The tough-talking attorney general said that he didn’t care if that caused Enbridge executives’ blood pressure to rise.

But this was all mostly a sham. Enbridge has never shipped any heavy crude through the pipeline, and a company spokesman said it has no plans to do so. Most of the state’s recommendations called for more study and more coordination between state agencies.

“Eventual closing of the pipeline was inevitable,” Wyant said.

Schuette noted that nobody would build such a pipeline today, and added:

“If you wouldn’t build it today, how many tomorrows will the pipeline be operational?"

Yet they said nothing about establishing a timetable for taking it out of service. We did learn that they discovered about a year ago that Enbridge had not lived up to an agreement with the state to install anchors to limit the length of unsupported – and therefore more dangerous – pipeline at the bottom of the lakes.

Enbridge admitted this, but has since begun correcting that problem. 

What is clear is that this is a ticking time bomb. The task force called for the state to require an independent risk analysis for the pipeline, and for Enbridge to provide more information. Taking the company’s word that the pipeline is safe is not nearly good enough, given what’s at stake. The recommendations also call for an independent analysis of alternatives to the existing pipeline, which is also crucial.

Disasters are always worse when there is no backup plan. Finally, it is crucial that we all make sure this doesn’t become just one more report gathering dust on a shelf. There are almost five miles of pipeline on the bottom of the greatest source of fresh water in North America, 62-year-old metal with oil under high pressure gushing through.

Earlier this year, I read that the great British writer Rebecca West once said that the epitaph for the human race might turn out to be simply this:

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this essay said there was no indication Enbridge had addressed the state's concerns about anchors on the pipeline. That has been corrected.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.