We Dodged A Bullet

Printed in the Cheboygan Tribune, May 2018

On April 1, 2018, we dodged a bullet. A tug/barge dragged its anchor through the no-anchor utility corridor just west of the Mighty Mac. It severed two electrical cables and dented or “marred” both Enbridge pipelines which carry almost 23 million gallons of Canadian oil thru the Straits each day. Enbridge has reduced line pressure by 40% pending repairs. Over 95% of that crude oil goes to Sarnia, Ontario for the Canadian market or for export.

If the anchor flukes had caught the pipelines near one of the 128 anchor supports (with plans for 70 more) there would have been a disastrous oil spill. These supports inconveniently raise the pipelines several feet off the bottom. Enbridge has continuous problems with washouts under the twin pipelines caused by higher than anticipated currents- sagging pipelines tend to break.

There was a huge 3-day blizzard in mid-April which caused the Coast Guard to suspend efforts for four days to recover the 600 gallons of insulating fluid that leaked from the severed electrical cables. Not a drop of this highly toxic dielectric fluid was recovered. Imagine instead a worst-case Line 5 leak (both lines ruptured and a manual, two-hour shutdown of valves) producing a spill of over 2.7 million gallons of crude oil, impacting more than 700 miles of shoreline. Under ideal conditions, a recovery of only 30% of a spill is considered good.

If Line 5 would have been severed too- the lives of everyone in northern Michigan would have been dramatically altered. For starters, almost any oil spill would shut down Mackinac Island and St. Ignace, which both get their water from the Straits. Boat traffic and fishing would also be suspended. Then there is the problem of oil polluting beaches and wetlands for years. A recent study published by FLOW conservatively estimates $6.3 billion in spill damages – mostly for tourism, property values, and fishing.

After 65 years of pumping Canadian oil back to Canada through the Michigan shortcut, Line 5 is now 15 years beyond its life expectancy. Michigan should not bear the risk of getting Canadian oil to market. The alternative study performed by Dynamic Risk last year projected an increase of only 1-2 cents per gallon for gasoline if Line 5 were shut down.

Oil pipelines may be the safest way to move oil until we gradually convert to renewable energy. However, oil lines just do not belong anywhere near the Great Lakes. A tunnel in the Straits is not the answer. It is an excuse to keep pumping during many years of study for a costly tunnel that will never be built. Electric and natural gas liquids sharing the same tunnel is a recipe for an explosive disaster. Line 5 runs for almost 540 miles through the rest of Pure Michigan – crossing countless wetlands and over 200 streams and rivers (running along US-27 between Burt and Mullet Lakes). Almost any significant spill outside the Straits would still pollute the Great Lakes watershed.

Leonard Page