The Problem With Pipelines — Damned If We Do & Damned If We Don’t

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How many miles of pipelines are there in the US? If you said 500,000 miles, you are way low. The total of all liquid petroleum and natural gas pipelines in America is just shy of 3,000,000 miles. Yikes! That is a serious amount of pipelines, people. Most are underground, which is good for keeping the landscape beautiful but not so good for spotting rust, cracks, and leaks. As my old Irish grandmother liked to say, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

From one perspective, those pipelines are the arteries that keep our lights on, our factories humming, and our vehicles going. From another perspective, they are delivering liquid death — products that pollute the atmosphere with massive carbon dioxide and methane emissions when they get burned. Not only that, most are powered by diesel engines that further pollute the environment.

It’s fair to say a modern society can’t live without them. It’s also fair to say that human beings are likely to disappear from the face of the Earth pretty soon if we don’t find sustainable alternatives for the energy they transport quite soon. Pipelines — can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

Michigan Orders Enbridge 5 Pipeline Shut Down

Straits of Mackinac. Image credit: Google Maps

The Enbridge 5 pipeline carries 540,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the tar sands of Alberta to the US. A 4.5 mile section of the 645 mile long pipeline, which was built nearly 70 years ago, crosses under the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan converge. Last November, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked the easement granted in 1953 that allows the pipeline to cross the straits, citing the “unreasonable risk” that it poses to the Great Lakes and what she said were Enbridge’s “persistent” breaches of the easement’s terms.

According to the Washington Post, Whitmer’s announcement listed several infractions, including failures to ensure that the lines are supported every 75 feet and have a coating to prevent erosion. It noted two incidents, in 2018 and 2019, in which the pipelines were struck and damaged by cables or anchors from boats. She ordered the line shut down by May 12, a deadline that is fast approaching.

The Canadian government is furious. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appealed to President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm for help. Joe Comartin, Canada’s consul general in Detroit, says a shutdown would have “significant” impacts on both sides of the border. He predicts effects ranging from propane shortages lasting for months to higher costs for consumers if fuels have to be transported by rail, truck, or boat. All those alternatives may be less climate friendly and more dangerous than a pipeline.

“The claim from the state that they are doing this to protect the Great Lakes, that they’re more interested in protecting the Great Lakes than we in Canada are. Basically, we reject that completely,” Comartin adds. So not only has the governor’s move endangered cross-border trade, it has also hurt Canada’s feelings.

Environmental groups and Indigenous people have applauded Whitmer’s decision to close the pipeline.“The Straits of Mackinac are a sacred wellspring of life and culture for Tribal Amici and other Indian Tribes in Michigan,” the tribes wrote in their brief to the federal court that is hearing a lawsuit against the state of Michigan brought by Enbridge. “An oil spill into those waters would be culturally, economically, spiritually and historically devastating.”

Nothing To See Here. Move Along

For its part, Enbridge says the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac is in good condition and is “probably the most heavily monitored pipeline segments in the Enbridge system, if not the nation. Line 5 is operating safely, reliably and is in compliance with the law,” says Tracie Kenyon, an Enbridge spokesperson. “The State of Michigan has never presented any concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.”

Canada has not ruled out invoking a 1977 treaty that bars officials from actions that “would have the effect of impeding, diverting, redirecting or interfering with … the transmission of hydrocarbon in transit” unless there was a natural disaster or operating emergency. That treaty has never been invoked, says Kristen van de Biezenbos, an energy law professor at the University of Calgary, largely because there haven’t been other attempts by public officials to stop a working pipeline that crosses the U.S.-Canada border. That “tells you something about how unusual Line 5 is,” she adds.

Monitors That Monitor Nothing

Enbridge claims its pipeline monitoring systems can detect any breaches that would allow the stuff flowing through its systems to escape. And yet, researchers report more than 1 million gallons of crud, excuse me, crude, have escaped the Line 5 pipeline since 1968 in 29 incidents we know of. Almost none of those spills were detected by the company’s vaunted monitoring systems. Most were discovered by airplanes flying overhead or people walking near the pipeline.

In 2010, Line 6B, a similar Enbridge pipeline, ruptured and spilled 1 million gallons of “dilbit” into the Kalamazoo River. What is “dilbit?” That is pipeline speak for diluted bitumen. Bitumen is what you get when you extract oil from the Alberta tar sands. It is so thick, it won’t flow so it has to be thinned with other hydrocarbons to get it to the consistency needed to pump it through a pipeline. It is nasty stuff and, of course, the ultimate problem is that humans should not be basing their existence on such sludge. And yet, that sludge ultimately supplies much of the gasoline, home heating oil, propane, and jet fuel needed by industries on both sides of the US-Canada border.

Last summer, the largest gasoline leak in the history of the United States — 1.2 million gallons — occurred near Huntersville, North Carolina. Did the pipeline detection systems used by Colonial Pipeline discover the leak? Nope, a couple of teenagers riding ATVs found it. If you “lost” a million gallons of gasoline, you’d know about it, wouldn’t you? And yet the company had no idea until those teenagers raised the alarm.

The Charlotte Observer says further investigation has revealed the size of the spill may be considerably larger than originally thought. Not to worry, the company says. 85% of the spilled gasoline has been recovered and its remediation procedures are working as intended. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Just business as usual. Move along.

And that’s precisely the problem. The drilling companies know some of the stuff they extract from the Earth is going to spill. The pipeline companies knows some of the stuff they push thorough their systems is going to spill. The tanker companies know some of their ships are going to rupture and spill crude oil into the ocean. Refineries know some of the stuff running through their pipes is going to spill. The trucking companies and railroads know that some of the tanks on wheels are going to leak or explode. It’s just a cost of doing business.

We are energy junkies who can’t control our appetite for the glorious, miraculous energy released when fossil fuels are burned. It’s the energy that builds bridges and highways, cities and factories, schools and shopping malls. It’s the energy that let’s us have breakfast in Boston, lunch in Berlin, and dinner in Barcelona. It’s the gift that multiplies the power of human and animal muscles exponentially. It’s also the engine that makes the human race like a virus, feeding off its host with no concern for the future and no understanding that someday that host will be completely devoured. And then what?

The crux of the matter is that all that energy is what keeps the global economy going and provides jobs for people all around the world. We can’t begin to imagine what would happen if the merry go round ever stopped. And so we continue running in place, doing the same thing today we did yesterday and will continue to do tomorrow.

A 70-year old pipeline under the Straights of Mackinac is a disaster waiting to happen. So is the Dakota Access pipeline and all those millions of miles of pipelines that crisscross America, bringing a mix of economic opportunity and environmental hazard to us all. It’s the central conundrum of our time. Shut down all the pipelines? Build more? The only truth in all this is that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

A tip of the CleanTechnica hat to Dan Allard who first brought the gasoline pipeline spill in North Carolina to our attention. 

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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