Officials with Enbridge Energy say they’ll spend $7 million over the next two years to buy new clean up tools in case there’s a spill along its Line 5 pipeline.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Line 5 where it crosses at the Straits of Mackinac. At the Straits, the oil and natural gas liquids pipeline splits into two smaller diameter pipelines to make the underwater crossing.
Many worry about the condition of the 63-year-old pipelines, and spill maps have shown that, left untouched, a spill has the potential to spread far into Lakes Huron and Michigan.
Officials with Enbridge say this new investment will focus on equipment that can recover oil in the open water -- similar to systems used in oil spills in the open ocean.
The company plans to buy things like high-speed oil skimmers, more oil boom and containment devices, and systems that can get at oil in icy conditions.
Senior manager of emergency response with Enbridge Stephen Lloyd says they’re making the investment to help them change the way they can approach a spill in the Straits of Mackinac. It’s a scenario Lloyd says is “very unlikely.”
“We really tried to look at it through a different lens of open water response, as opposed to waiting for oil to come to you on the shoreline and pick it up. ‘What does it take to attack it in open water?’ If you want to call that motivation, that was sort of the lens we looked at it through -- to change the way we’re set up for response at the Straits,” says Lloyd.
Lloyd says the new equipment goes beyond what federal regulations call for. He says some of the new emergency equipment will be stored right at the Straits of Mackinac.
Critics say the fact that this equipment isn't already required shows federal regulations are not strong enough.
The National Wildlife Federation has sued the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The group says the federal agency doesn’t compel companies like Enbridge to develop open water emergency response plans - plans that would be much different than emergency response plans onshore.
Oil companies like Enbridge are supposed to assess the risks along their pipelines and develop emergency response plans for those risks. PHMSA then signs off on those plans.
PHMSA last signed off on Enbridge’s emergency response plans for this area in 2013.
The National Wildlife Federation’s Mike Shriberg says it’s good that the company is making more investments in its emergency response equipment, but he doesn’t think it’ll do much good if a spill were to occur in the Straits of Mackinac - an area known for unpredictable currents and fast changing weather conditions.
“I think it’s really a fallacy to think that more onsite equipment is going to do anything significant to actually mitigate the impacts to the Great Lakes if there is a spill there,” Shriberg says.
Enbridge says it’s always working to improve its spill response plans. The say a third-party consultant assessed their response plans for Line 5 and recommended the purchase of the new equipment.
The company is almost certainly feeling the pressure from outside groups and lawmakers as well.
A bill that reauthorized funding for PHMSA had some provisions targeted specifically at the pipelines under the Straits. The bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama, requires PHMSA and pipeline operators to address risks associated with waterway subject to ice cover. It also designates the Straits of Mackinac as an “Unusually Sensitive Area” which subjects the pipeline operator to higher regulatory standards. And it calls on annual internal inspections of the pipeline under the Straits - something the company is only required to do every five years under current law.
In full disclosure, Enbridge Energy is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Enbridge Line 5 transports liquid natural gas. That is not correct. It transports light crude and natural gas liquids.