Credit: National Wildlife Federation

Groups that have been closely involved with Michigan officials’ inquiry into the safety of oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac say the ongoing process is moving too slowly and continues to favor the company.

The Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign — which includes a wide network of business and environmental groups and local governments — criticized an announcement earlier this week about the state’s selecting two firms to conduct analyses on Enbridge Line 5’s risks and alternatives.

Specifically, the group questions why Enbridge will essentially pay $3.6 million for the independent studies and have a chance to review the final report for five days before the public can. The groups are also raising conflict-of-interest questions about the company conducting the alternatives analysis, Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems Inc., which has done work for Enbridge in the past.

The “contribution in aid agreement” signed this week by Enbridge and Michigan officials “raises more questions than it answers,” said Liz Kirkwood, an attorney and executive director of For the Love of Water, or FLOW.

“Not only is Enbridge funding both the risk and alternatives analyses for Line 5, but Enbridge will have five days prior to the final report being publicly disclosed to review and prepare its press releases and commentary in advance,” Kirkwood said.

“I’m surprised that it’s already been a year since (a state task force report) came out that we’re literally just getting the wheels turning in motion as to selecting and paying contractors.”

An independent analysis of both the financial risks of a Line 5 spill as well as a study on alternative routes were two recommendations made in a July 2015 report by the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force. The task force was assembled by top state officials to look into the threats associated with a pipeline spill in the Straits of Mackinac.

“In sum, Enbridge appears to have offered conflicting, incomplete, and inadequately supported estimates of its total liability under the Easement,” the 2015 report noted about the need for an independent look into the financial risks of a Line 5 spill. “Moreover, Enbridge’s estimates cannot be considered completely objective as it has an inherent economic incentive to under-estimate the magnitude of a spill and the resulting liability.”

And on finding alternatives to Line 5, the 2015 report says: “Enbridge has repeatedly emphasized its stated commitment not only to the safety and reliability of its operations, but also to ‘building trust and engaging with our stakeholders’ and to ‘transparency.’ Those goals would be served by a thorough and credible evaluation of all alternatives, not just the continued operation of the existing Straits Pipelines for the indefinite future.”

However, Enbridge and state officials are defending the process, saying Enbridge will not have a chance to revise the final report before it’s released publicly and that the public will be able to weigh in after the first draft is released. Officials expect a final report to be issued next summer.

“The agreement does NOT allow Enbridge to make edits,” Andrea Bitely, press secretary for Attorney General Bill Schuette, said in an email about the five-day window. “It is to allow them to review the document and prepare a response. The public will also be allowed a comment period before the document is finalized by the State of Michigan.”

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the company’s only role in the independent analyses is “to provide the contractors with information when it’s requested.”

“The five day window is part of the agreement worked out with the Advisory Board. As the agreement says, it’s just an opportunity to review the findings, Enbridge cannot make any changes.”

‘No room on other lines’

Enbridge has repeatedly disputed findings of the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign that Line 5 could be shut down and that the crude oil moving through it could be rerouted through pipelines in Ontario and through Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana before reaching Michigan and Ontario refineries.

Environmental groups issued a 114-page report in December detailing such alternatives.

“People tend to look at pipelines like roads,” Duffy said in an email. “Just as you can move any vehicle on any road, you should be able to move any product on any pipeline. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

“The various pipelines in Enbridge’s systems are designed for specific purposes. They carry specific commodities (heavy crude, light crude, natural gas, natural gas liquids, etc.) from areas of production to industrial users which use the fuel we deliver (to) make products for businesses and consumers. Years of careful planning go into route selection. These plans are carefully reviewed and vetted by governing and regulatory bodies before pipe is laid. Right now, there is not room on other lines to carry the energy Line 5 transports.”

In a conference call with reporters in late May, Republican state Sen. Rick Jones also called for an alternative route.

“This isn’t going to Michigan refineries, for the most part. It’s simply taking a shortcut. Canadian oil is taking a shortcut through Michigan and the Great Lakes to get to Sarnia (Ontario). There is no reason to run this through Michigan,” Jones said.

Jones introduced legislation earlier this year that would require alternatives, though he said Enbridge lobbyists moved quickly to quash it.

In April 2016, the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign also alleged that in eight instances Enbridge is violating the 1953 easement that allowed the twin pipelines to be built, giving Michigan authority to shut the pipeline down. Enbridge has also disputed those claims.

Timeliness and public input

Additionally, Kirkwood remains concerned about the type and timeliness of information Enbridge will choose to disclose to the analysis firms and “what role the public will have in reviewing this information.”

“In the task force reports, one of the four recommendations was to obtain additional information from Enbridge to promote greater transparency and disclosure,” Kirkwood said. “I think there’s a legitimate concern that this type of agreement does not encourage and satisfy that specific goal of the state of Michigan.”

Along with the National Wildlife Federation, FLOW has also “articulated concern,” Kirkwood said, about the selection of Dynamic to do the alternatives assessment. The company, along with Det Norske Veritas Inc., was selected after Michigan sent out a request for proposals in February.

Dynamic has worked with Enbridge on its Northern Gateway Project that would link Alberta’s tar sands with British Columbia, documents show. Enbridge “engaged” Dynamic to determine potential failure frequencies on that project, which is still being held up in Canadian courts.

A Dynamic official was unavailable to comment for this story. Duffy deferred questions to the state about its process of selecting contractors.

Det Norske has also been involved as an independent consultant on the Northern Gateway Project as well as on Enbridge’s 2010 oil spill in Marshall, Michigan.

“With Enbridge paying for the analysis and with Enbridge being on (a state) advisory board, Enbridge is really in the driver’s seat yet again,” Kirkwood said. “Being able to designate information that is proprietary and confidential then being able to construct a narrative in advance of public notice — I think we’re still seeing some problems with the type of transparency that we would expect from the state.”

On Thursday afternoon, environmental groups again criticized the potential influence of industry on the Line 5 inquiry. The Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club called on Gov. Rick Snyder’s newest appointee to head the state Department of Environmental Quality to recuse herself from decisions about Line 5 due to her ties to the oil and gas industry. Snyder’s appointee, Heidi Grether, reportedly worked for BP America Inc. from 1993 to 2012 as a lobbyist and a communications official during the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

And then there is the pace of the review, Kirkwood said. Pressure has continued to build across Michigan from advocacy groups as well as businesses, state lawmakers and local units of government to shut down Line 5. Thursday was the one-year anniversary from when the state task force report was released, yet Kirkwood said the state has not taken any “preventative, precautionary measures in advance of a catastrophic disaster from happening.

“The question is still resting heavy on my mind: Why hasn’t the state implemented interim measures to prevent a spill? Why hasn’t there been specific measures to temporarily stop the flow of oil while the studies are pending?”


Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.