Credit: National Wildlife Federation

While advocates have claimed for more than a year that Michigan officials have enough evidence to seek a court order to close an underwater oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, a renewed effort to independently analyze the pipeline’s risk may finally prompt the state to take action.

The renewed risk analysis is also being led by university researchers to improve the credibility of a process that was previously cut short after conflict-of-interest issues with previous consultants.

Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the state’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, says it’s a matter of “when, not if, (the state) takes action against Enbridge to decommission this.”

Shriberg was appointed to the advisory board along with 14 other members representing different agencies and stakeholder groups, including Enbridge, which owns the pipeline. The board first met in October 2015.

“The state has a stronger position when all of the information is in,” Shriberg added, referring to the risk analysis announced last month.

Since April 2016, advocates have alleged Enbridge is violating several terms of a 1953 easement agreement with the state to operate the pipeline. They say their case was bolstered in August after reports that damage to the pipeline was greater than Enbridge had disclosed, prompting concern from top state officials and Gov. Rick Snyder.

But pursuing a litigation route under easement violations, Shriberg said, comes with a certain amount of risk itself.

“I think the state does have enough information (to close Line 5), but I think the state is and should be playing the long game,” Shriberg said. “We want a permanent solution to this problem, not just injunctive relief on grounds that could be overturned. We need a quantitative sense of the risk and a realistic sense of alternatives, otherwise we’re at risk of losing a battle that would surely ensue under the easement.”

Turning to researchers

Last month, the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board unanimously recommended to proceed with a risk analysis of Line 5 to be led by Guy Meadows, director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University, who also serves on the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board. Meadows recused himself from the vote and plans to resign from the board when a contract for the study is signed with the state.

Over the past few weeks, Meadows has reached out to roughly 15 Michigan colleges and universities to assemble a team of researchers for the study.

While Shriberg and Meadows sought to conduct the studies through academics in the first place, private consulting firms were the only ones to respond to the state’s original request for proposals.

“Since universities didn’t respond, other companies did,” Meadows said. “Now that a company has tried and failed for whatever reasons, we’re willing to make that try (with universities) again. There’s a small chance the state won’t be happy with what we come up with, but on the other hand, I’m pretty optimistic we can put together a credible, fair report concentrated on facts.”

Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems was selected for the alternatives analysis, which produced a draft report in June to widespread criticism, including from multiple state agencies that said it was inadequate.

The state terminated its contract for the risk analysis due to conflict-of-interest concerns with Det Norske Veritas, which was selected at the same time as Dynamic.

“I do believe this approach is the wisest way to potentially salvage something out of what’s been a deeply flawed process,” Shriberg said. “I advocated for the approach with academics from the beginning.”

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the company supports the path being led by Meadows. “We anticipate it will help build trust and confidence among Michigan residents in our continued safe and reliable operations of Line 5 in the Straits,” Duffy said.

Shriberg suggested that the rigid scope of work in the request for proposals was geared toward consultants in the first place.

“The state was looking for someone to deliver the plan they had worked out. Academic institutions like to frame the work on their own terms with some independence involved,” Shriberg said. “Now we’re in a situation where industry consultants completely blew it on the risk analysis and the alternatives analysis was not a credible draft by any standards, so we’re turning back to the university community.”

He added that it “remains to be seen” how closely researchers follow the state’s original proposal. Meadows said once a team is selected, it will write a proposal for how it’s going to address the scope “already specified by the state.” Anticipating some “back and forth” with the state on that, a final contract will need to be signed to start the work.

Nick Assendelft, spokesperson for the Michigan Agency for Energy, said the original request for proposals was “broad in scope and allowed for any interested party” to submit their proposal to the state. He added that the requests were forwarded by Meadows to “several Michigan universities when they were released in February 2016, but none of the schools chose to submit a response at that time.”

Assendelft said four state agencies drafted the request for proposals and then sought input by Pipeline Safety Advisory Board (PSAB) members.

“Although an Enbridge employee is a member of the PSAB and gave public input through that process, Enbridge did not determine the content of the RFPs any more than any other public commenter,” Assendelft said.

Advocates have also raised concerns about prior research Meadows has done that was funded by Enbridge. According to Michigan Tech, the Great Lakes Research Center has had four contracts to do research for Enbridge. The projects included environmental monitoring buoys in the Straits of Mackinac, hydrostatic testing on Line 5 and providing observational data on the pipelines and the lake floor using an autonomous underwater vehicle.

A Michigan Tech spokesperson said of the nearly $14.2 million the Great Lakes Research Center has been awarded since 2012, Enbridge contributed $740,963, or 5.23 percent.

Michigan Tech President Glenn D. Mroz said in a statement: “The role of all the universities involved is as impartial presenters of scientific data, and to present scientific analyses agreed upon by the group, so that policy makers have a firm foundation of data for making decisions.

“Prior to making their recommendation, the PSAB members were all aware of previous work we have done to model water movement … and our technology for remote and autonomous vehicles that we had transferred to Enbridge. We feel comfortable that with the endorsement of such a broad cross section of Michigan interests, the work will be well respected.”

Liz Kirkwood, an attorney for For Love of Water (FLOW), said potential conflicts of interest go deeper than that.

“What happens when you have advisory boards with the regulated entity on it, the types of conflicts of interest that are arise are very significant,” she said, adding that Enbridge’s recent lack of disclosing the amount of bare metal exposed on the pipeline shows “how deep this problem is and how deeply entrenched we are in conflict of interest here.

“Our position remains unchanged in that it’s fine to conduct a risk study, but the state should have been independently addressing this issue in a much more expedited fashion rather than relying on a process that’s only been delayed and riddled with problems.”

Kirkwood added that tapping researchers is still a positive development: “I think they’re going to prioritize the integrity of their academic institutions and make sure they are providing the state and citizens with a true analysis of the potential risk here.”

Finding worst-case-scenarios

Asked whether he believes there is already evidence to close Line 5, or that the risks have already been understood, Meadows said the team is simply responding to what the state is asking for.

“My feeling is that the state believed there was not sufficient evidence to look at all sides,” he said.

In August 2016, state officials told Midwest Energy News that they felt there was “inadequate information” to justify pursuing a court order to shut down Line 5.

In identifying Line 5’s risk, Meadows said it’s likely that the team of researchers may look at more than one worst-case scenario, such as during different seasons.

“There may be more than just a single worst-case scenario, in my view,” Meadows said.

Shriberg said the industry’s and regulators’ definitions of worst-case-scenario is “very limited and flawed,” pointing to the extent of the damage from Enbridge’s Kalamazoo oil spill in 2010. He added that the study should consider the worst possible weather conditions, automatic shut-off valves not working and operators making human errors when controlling the pumping. Shriberg said that could include a 5,000-barrel spill at the minimum, and up to 100,000 barrels.

“The key is to look at a range of impacts there,” Shriberg said, adding that there are assumptions already that a worst-case scenario could cost in the tens of billions of dollars.

Duffy said Enbridge already looks at “release scenarios” and, if there’s a change in pressure, the company could activate automatic shut-off valves, isolating the pipelines within three minutes.

“Further, given Line 5 operates at 25 percent of its pressure capacity, the approximate volume of oil released from a single pipeline between the valves that bracket the Straits would be 4,950 barrels,” Duffy added. “And even that is a high estimate because it doesn’t take into account several factors such as leak location, hydrostatic pressure from the water depth that would restrict oil or NGLs from escaping the pipeline, and the likelihood that product would be trapped above the rupture location. Once isolated any residual pressure in the pipeline will displace oil until the pipeline reaches a state of equilibrium where external water pressure would impede oil flowing from the pipeline.”

Duffy added that the products shipped on Line 5 are “floating oils.”

“The oil that does not evaporate will sit on the surface of the water, allowing Enbridge and first responders to capture the oil through skimmers, boom and vacuum trucks. (Natural Gas Liquids) in particular will in most cases evaporate.”

In July 2014, though, researchers at the University of Michigan said a pipeline rupture in the Straits — the “worst possible place” for a Great Lakes oil spill — could contaminate the shoreline for miles (the report was commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation.) Pipeline experts — on behalf of FLOW and other environmental groups — have also presented the state with structural problems on Line 5.

Following the release of the alternatives analysis, an engineer with Dynamic Risk said there’s a 1 in 60 chance of a Line 5 break by 2053.

Jeffrey Pillon, director of energy assurance for the National Association of State Energy Officials and also a Pipeline Safety Advisory Board member, said the “whole purpose of this study is to get a more comprehensive assessment of the risks. There has been a lot of information provided but it’s not been complete — a lot of different views and a lot of different opinions. We’ve heard from many different parties over the corse of the last year that share many different perspectives that are not always consistent. You’ve got to sort through those.”

Timing questions

It has been more than three years since the state first started assembling teams and reports on Line 5, and two years since Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that the pipeline’s “days are numbered.” The conflict-of-interest revelations put the risk analysis on hold for at least four more months.

Shriberg says this raises another key timing question: Will the advisory board complete its work before the end of Snyder’s term at the end of 2018? That’s also when the board will likely dissolve in the turnover of a new administration, Shriberg said. Snyder, who was first elected in 2010, is term-limited.

“We can run out the clock if we’re not careful on the Snyder administration and on Attorney General Bill Schuette’s time as AG,” Shriberg said.

Schuette, who is also term-limited, is campaigning for governor and at this point is the favored Republican candidate.

“The point I have been making is to push this (study) to get actionable information into the hands of the Snyder administration and the attorney general in the short-term,” Shriberg said.

Once a contract is signed with the state on the risk analysis, it is expected to take about six months, which is shaping up to be mid-2018.

Assendelft, of the Michigan Agency for Energy, said the state is “focused on studying the results of the analyses, hearing from the public and the Board, and evaluating all the pertinent information before it makes any recommendations on Line 5.”

But when that happens is unclear, and a spokesperson at Michigan Tech said the timeline is not yet ready to be publicly released.

“As you get closer to elections, important decisions are harder to make,” Shriberg noted. “The clock is ticking on this.”

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.