Credit: George Thomas / Creative Commons

A Michigan-based water law and policy group pushing for the permanent shutdown of an oil and gas pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac says it has found more alternatives that would eliminate the need to process propane in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A facility roughly 130 miles “upstream” of the Mackinac Bridge on Enbridge’s Line 5 processes natural gas into propane for U.P. residents, and Enbridge says the pipeline is therefore crucial for maintaining those supplies.

However, the group For the Love of Water (FLOW) on Monday identified an alternative that would increase propane processing in Superior, Wisconsin and move supplies to the U.P. from there by four to five tanker trucks or one to two rail cars a day. The group c0-leads a broad coalition of business and environmental groups and local governments called Oil and Water Don’t Mix.

FLOW’s latest findings are in addition to several alternatives it identified in a December 2015 report that found alternatives for moving Line 5’s oil capacity to refineries in the Midwest and Ontario that didn’t cross the Straits of Mackinac.

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s executive director, said in addition to the risks Line 5 pose to the Great Lakes, the group also wondered how U.P. residents’ energy supply would be impacted without Line 5.

“Right now, there’s incredible vulnerability for residents in the U.P.,” Kirkwood said. “For example, if the pipeline ruptured right now, there is no Plan B. We have a lot of concerns (about Line 5), but what about the stability of a reliable energy supply for U.P. residents?”

While propane can be made as a byproduct of natural gas and oil refining, Kirkwood said only Line 5’s liquid natural gas is “depropanized” at a facility in Rapid River, Michigan, about 15 miles north of Escanaba on the northern point of Little Bay de Noc.

FLOW’s December 2015 study said: “From a logistics and engineering viewpoint, there is no basis for concern” in keeping the Rapid River facility because it is “very much ‘upstream’” of the Straits.

“One of the things that will have to be examined is if you decommission Line 5 at the Straits, arguably you could continue doing this propane (at Rapid River),” Kirkwood said. “However, Enbridge has indicated that’s not economically viable.”

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy discounted FLOW’s recent findings, saying the group already “released this information” as part of its December 2015 report.

“If you talk to People who live throughout Michigan and in the U.P., who rely on propane to heat their homes and cook their food, they understand the importance of reliable energy that they can afford. Enbridge provides this energy and is the reason it remains affordable,” Duffy said in an email.

Communication breakdown

Enbridge also disputes FLOW’s findings that Line 5 supplies only 35 to 50 percent of the U.P.’s propane needs.

An Enbridge official claimed in January 2016 that Line 5’s capacity transports enough light crude oil and natural gas liquids “to heat 85 percent or 240,000 of the homes in Northern Michigan.” Enbridge has also said that as of June 2016, “65 percent of propane demand in the Upper Peninsula, and 55 percent of Michigan’s statewide propane needs, were met by Line 5.”

Kirkwood said FLOW’s findings are based on publicly available data the group reviewed from Enbridge, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau.

“That’s a huge discrepancy, even for six months, that fluctuated 20 percent,” Kirkwood said. “It’s also indicative of how volatile this industry is and understanding supply and demand. The other important thing to mention is that we’re just going off what’s publicly available. Enbridge has data I’m sure we don’t have.”

Duffy countered: “We don’t know where their numbers are coming from or what data they’re using. Those numbers were not accurate in 2015 and they’re not accurate now.”

He added that the company’s 65 percent figure is based “on the amounts we deliver to our customers in the U.P. Without that data I’m not sure how someone could come to a conclusion about how important Line 5 is to the U.P.”

While it may appear to be a minor detail in the overall issue, Kirkwood said the discrepancy illustrates how the company, the state and advocates have been communicating over the past two years.

A clearer understanding of the economic implications of — and alternatives for — decommissioning Line 5 may come in roughly four months when a pair of studies are scheduled to be released looking at those two factors.

Gov. Rick Snyder established the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board in September 2015 to assemble stakeholders in this process, though advocates say Enbridge has largely been steering the scope of the findings. For example, Enbridge is paying $3.6 million for the two studies that were commissioned by the state, and the company will have a chance to review the studies’ findings five days before being publicly released.

Also, FLOW has identified eight violations of the easement agreement with the state, such as a lack of anchor supports, concealing information about corrosion and failing to adhere to federal and state emergency spill response laws. The state — which gave the company 90 days to take corrective action on the anchor supports — said in August that there was still “inadequate information” to pursue a legal case against Enbridge, and that calls to shut down the pipeline are premature. Other state officials, however, have said the pipeline’s “days are numbered.”

“From a legal perspective, we believe the state of Michigan still has a very viable case to bring against Enbridge, but they have chosen not to use the legal avenue, but rather have opted through a task force and now an advisory board (to go with) these ongoing studies that are not under the rule of law,” Kirkwood said.

“It’s very difficult to know at this point whether the (studies’) contractors are examining a broad-enough or inclusive-enough scope.”

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.