Enbridge plans to bring more tar sands oil into Great Lakes region

Sep 16, 2014

There’s been a lot of controversy over TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. But there’s another company working to bring more tar sands oil into the U.S.

Enbridge Energy wants to increase the amount of heavy crude oil crossing the border from the Alberta tar sands into the Great Lakes region.

Cleanup of the 2010 Enbridge oil spill. The company wants to bring more tar sands oil from the Alberta oil sands region into the U.S.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Lorraine Little is with Enbridge. She says Enbridge wants to move more oil on its pipeline known as the Alberta Clipper. That pipeline runs about a thousand miles from northern Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.

“Its purpose is to carry heavy crude oil from the oil sands in Alberta into our Superior terminal where then it can get off on other pipelines and serve refining markets around the Midwest region or other parts of the country,” she says.

Back in November of 2012, Enbridge filed an application with the U.S. State Department. The company wants to raise the capacity of the border segment of the Alberta Clipper pipeline to 800,000 barrels per day (they're currently transporting 450,000 barrels per day).

That permit is still under review.

"Basically, they're doing a little end run around the border to try to get past a permitting limit." - Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation

Shifting oil between pipelines

But in the meantime, before the permit is issued, Enbridge has found another way to get that oil into the U.S.

Since they can’t bring the oil across in the Alberta Clipper, they’re working to bring it across in another line, Line 3. Little says Line 3 doesn’t have a capacity limit in its permit. Once it’s across the border, that oil will be moved back to the Alberta Clipper.

Shifting the oil between these pipelines will allow Enbridge to get to its 800,000 barrel a day target.

“We’ve talked with the Department of State about that work; they’ve been fully briefed on those plans, and they’ve confirmed that work doesn’t require any federal approvals because those pipelines already have permits in place,” Little says.

She stresses that these pipeline connections are a temporary solution, and that Enbridge is continuing to work with the State Department toward the presidential permit.

Activist groups worry about lakes, permit process

But some environmental groups are outraged about Enbridge’s plan to connect the pipelines.

“Basically, they’re doing a little end run around the border to try to get past a permitting limit,” says Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.

“The State Department made a clear commitment that before the Alberta Clipper was allowed to be expanded and more tar sands was allowed to flow through that line, that there would be a new permit for the Alberta Clipper and that impacts of bringing more tar sands into the Great Lakes region would be thoroughly examined with an environmental review process. Now, you’ve got a situation where that process is still undergoing, but it’s basically become meaningless.”

Murphy says his group might file a lawsuit if the decision isn’t reversed.

The State Department did not want to be interviewed for this story. But in an email, a spokesperson says the State Department has no role in approving changes in pipeline facilities outside the border segment of a pipeline.