10 little-known facts about the Mackinac oil pipeline through the Great Lakes

Posted on Posted in Sustain, Unite

This Tuesday, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council will host a public symposium providing an opportunity to directly communicate with Enbridge, regulators, and emergency responders about the risks associated with the 61-year-old Mackinac Pipeline. If this is your first time hearing about this pipeline, check out the report called Sunken Hazard, which provides a glimpse into what we know about the operation of this pipeline and possible risks posed to the Great Lakes. 

REMINDER: If you plan to attend the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council meeting, please make sure you register to ensure you have a seat. The Council will also take questions prior to the meeting, so I wanted to lay out 10 little-known facts about this pipeline:

SUMMARY: 10) Two pipelines, not one, 9) Exports oil out of the U.S., 8) Carries tar sands oil, 7) spilled oil might not surface, 6) Suspends a sunken river, 5) Just increased in pressure, 4) Could have 700 crack features, 3) 640 miles of unknown pipeline, 2) Spill response plans will not work, 1) Line 5 has a history of failures.

10) Enbridge actually has two massive oil pipelines running through the heart of the Great Lakes

Enbridge's Mackinac Pipelines
Enbridge’s Mackinac Pipelines

On land, the Line 5 pipeline is 30 inches wide, but when this pipeline crosses the Straits of Mackinac it is broken into two 20 inch pipelines (see photo to the left) that are about 1000 feet apart. The reason for the two lines is a little unclear but here’s what I’ve been able to gather from research:

-Two smaller pipelines eliminates some risk: If there is a leak, less oil will spill from a 20 inch pipeline. In addition, they constructed these two lines so one can be closed while the other remains operational.
-I also know that these two pipelines are considered seamless, which limits the size of pipeline. A seamless pipeline is important because cracks and breaks along seams is one of the leading factors for spills.  However, seamless is incredibly misleading because the length of the duel pipelines is around 4 miles and each section of pipeline is only 40 feet long so there’s a weld connecting the joins every 40 feet. How often are they checking these welds for cracks and how are they running those test?

One other important note: The Mackinac pipeline is an interstate pipeline, which means it crosses state boundaries and is regulated federally through the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Because this pipeline is regulated by PHMSA, the State of Michigan has very little opportunity (currently) to discuss how the pipeline operates. However, there are many groups working to have Michigan take on more oversight authority, especially the Pipeline Safety Trust.

9) Line 5 exports oil back into Canada

Enbridge Lakehead System
Enbridge Lakehead System

That’s right! This pipeline, which compromises one of the most sensitive areas in the world and the U.S., is exporting oil for the sole benefit of Canada. Michigan is assuming all the risk for very little (if any) reward. This pipeline is part of a much larger network of pipelines called the Lakehead system, which has become the superhighway for tar sands transportation from Alberta, Canada (see map to the right). So yes, you’ve got it right, Enbridge is importing oil into the U.S. only to export it back into Canada. Line 5 begins in Superior, Wisc., and ends in Sarnia, Canada. Oil flows into the US on several different Enbridge pipelines, including the Alberta Clipper pipeline, which is currently one of many pipelines Enbridge is trying to expand. In Superior, Wisc., oil then runs south through Wisconsin or east on Line 5. So why did Michigan agree to put such an irrelevant pipeline in one of the most sensitive locations in the world? That is the burning question..we do know this: There are a couple of smaller pipelines that Enbridge says connect to Line 5 in Michigan but the amount of oil transported, and frequency, is not disclosed to the public. I think it’s safe to assume that the risk far outweighs the reward. 

8) This pipeline currently carries tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada

Line 5 currently transports a form of tar sands derived crude, which they call “high sour“. This is tar sands oil. There are all different forms of tar sands oil – most of us know about diluted bitumen because of the Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo River or because of the debate around Keystone XL. Enbridge currently states that “heavy” diluted bitumen is not running through Line 5 but regulations for oil pipelines will not require notification to the public when Enbridge does decide to change products. Because Enbridge is currently trying to double the capacity of the Alberta Clipper pipeline and Line 3, which both carry diluted bitumen to Superior, Wisc., there’s a high probability that Enbridge will one day try to put heavy crude (diluted bitumen) on Line 5. They are repeatedly asked this question and there’s always a shallow response that goes something like this: I am aware of no plans to transport heavy crude on Line 5. 

7) During a spill, some oil could never surface and oil will travel into Lakes Michigan and Huron (possibly at the same time)

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 1.10.52 PMBecause of the depths of the pipelines, which run between 100-200 feet below the surface of the water, there is high probability that some spilled oil will mix with the sediment in the water and never surface. Submerged oil proved to be an incredible challenge for Enbridge during the Kalamazoo River spill when the diluted bitumen sank in the river. They have spent over $1 billion trying to clean up that spill – both Enbridge and the EPA say that some oil will remain. At last estimate, the EPA believes around 100,000 gallons of oil remain in the river system. In addition, oil at the Straits will spread in different directions at different depths. Surface water at the Straits often runs in a different direction than water found below the thermocline (see the NOAA chart above). These facts make predicting the spread of oil next to impossible.

6) Line 5 suspends over a sunken river channel

Watch this video and try to comprehend how Enbridge has two 20 inch pipelines running over (or through) this channel:

Enbridge has been asked to discuss how these pipelines cross the sheer walls of this channel several times. They have yet to provide the public with information on how these 61-year-old pipelines suspend this location. I helped develop a video for the National Wildlife Federation last summer, which shows parts of the pipeline underwater. Because of the depths of the lines, divers were only able obtain footage of the pipelines less than 100 feet below the surface of the water. A drop camera was then used to gather some shots of the deeper pipeline (around 200 feet), but obtaining that footage was incredibly difficult because of the conditions. Still, at those depths the pipeline begins to suspend off the lakebed and there’s giant piles of unknown debris covering the line. Concerned officials and organizations continue to request inspection footage of these pipelines from Enbridge and PHMSA; to-date, those requests have been denied. 

5) In 2013 Enbridge increased the flow (and pressure) on Line 5 by 10%

Last summer Enbridge rushed through a project that increased power at their pumping stations, which allowed them to increase pressure on this pipeline by 50,000 bpd or 10%. Because this pipeline has an international boarder crossing into Sarnia, Ontario, and a Presidential Permit, there should have been a National Interest Determination because of the change in operations, however the only approval Enbridge obtained was from PHMSA. From what I’ve been able to dig up, PHMSA only required Enbridge to run three pipeline hydrostatic tests to prove the line could take the increased pressure. Sadly, I’ve learned that those three hydrotests were in sections of pipeline that had never been hydrotested before. This leads me to believe that the sections of tested line are not in locations that are considered sensitive otherwise they would have fallen into the integrity management program and Enbridge would be running regular tests. Enbridge also admitted that the Straits were not one of the required locations by PHMSA. In addition, those hydro tests actually turned up a failure near Bay City, but Enbridge still received their rubber stamp.

4) As of 2011, Enbridge reported over 700 “crack features” along this pipeline

Because transparency between Enbridge, PHMSA and the public is so bad, we have no way of knowing where these crack features are along this pipeline and how they are being addressed (if at all). Anyone that has concerns about the two pipelines in the Straits should be concerned with the entire 645 miles of pipeline, which travels throughout the Great Lakes basin (sometimes within only a couple hundred feet of Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron). In comparison, the Enbridge pipeline that caused the Kalamazoo River spill had 329 known anomalies on the pipeline at the time of that rupture, including the 6 foot crack that caused the release. It’s important to remember that the Kalamazoo River spill didn’t actually originate in the river. The rupture occurred in a wetland that overfilled with oil (5 acres). The oil flooded Talmadge Creek and traveled 1.5 miles before hitting the Kalamazoo River (around 40 miles of the river system in total). If a break happens anywhere along the Line 5 pipeline, it could be devastating for the Great Lakes Basin. 

3) The pipeline at the Straits crossing might be thicker steel, but what about the rest of the line?

Not all pipelines are created equal. How does the integrity of the rest of this pipeline stack up to the Straits crossing? Pipelines are largely regulated by an Integrity Management Program, which asks operators to identify sensitive or “ high consequence” areas (large populations, wetlands, water crossings) and ensure pipelines in those areas operate safely. The problem is that regulators don’t stipulate which areas are high consequence – that determination is left up to the operator. Claiming security risks, operators and regulators do not disclose those areas to the public so we have no way of knowing what parts of the pipeline operators regularly inspect, repair, or replace. Even worse, if a section of line does not fall within a “high consequence” area then the operators decide when and where they need to run inspections. When Enbridge talks about the steel thickness in the Straits pipeline they are only referring to around 4 miles of pipeline, they are not speaking for the other 640 miles of pipeline, which cross hundreds of streams and rivers within the Great Lakes Basin.

2) Enbridge’s response plan for the Straits will not work.

BUT lets walk through the facts anyway. Enbridge believes a spill on Line 5 would trigger an alarm and they can remotely shut down the pipeline within 3 minutes – a little over 230,000 gallons could be released in that time. Remember that it took them 17 hours to shut down Line 6B during the Kalamazoo River spill – and they had to be told that their pipeline was leaking. Enbridge’s emergency response plan also indicates that it would take their response contractors 3 hours to respond from Escanaba or 6 hours from Bay City. Depending on the weather, a response might not even be possible; how long were the lakes frozen over this winter? If you want to imagine what I’m talking about, check out this video of an icebreaker rescuing a freighter in the Straits this past winter..that’s right, a freighter!

Photo by Jeff Alexander - located at a local archive1) Line 5 has a history of failures 

This pipeline has never been replaced and has had a history of failure. In my search I was only able to locate spill records since 1988, in that timeline Line 5 operators have reported 15 incidents. Most notable is a 1999 rupture near Crystal Falls, Mich., when Line 5 released 226,000 gallons of crude and natural gas liquids. Like many pipeline failures around the country, Enbridge did not discover this rupture – a motorist driving by smelled the strong petroleum odor and called 911. This spill formed a potentially explosive cloud that forced dozens of nearby residents to evacuate. Enbridge officials ignited the vapor cloud to prevent it from spreading, which touched off a fire that burned for 36 hours and scorched eight acres of land.

The takeaway: While there always needs to be a large focus on emergency response, the bigger issue is preventing a disaster from ever occurring. Enbridge and PHMSA need to start by being transparent with the public, which would create a real conversation about safety and next steps!

While working on this issue I’ve discovered that people all across the Great Lakes have unique insight or knowledge on this pipeline. If you have a little-known fact that you would like to share, or a question you hope will be answered, please leave a comment and I’ll update the blog.



8 thoughts on “10 little-known facts about the Mackinac oil pipeline through the Great Lakes

    1. Line 5 is owned by Enbridge Energy Partner, which is a subsidiary of Enbridge Energy based out of Canada. While Enbridge Energy Partners has HQ in Texas, this pipeline is monitored out of Edmonton, Alberta. Enbridge Energy is a Canadian company. Enbridge also has shareholders, which they work hard to keep that what you mean by asking who owns them?

  1. Great reporting and info, but where is the call to action? Too many people read stories like this, shake their head, then move on to the next frightening story, failing to give this one another thought until the spill happens. If you’d include a few simple “what can I do?” steps, then maybe we could do more than just spread awareness. For starters, maybe a call or email to a state and/or federal representative? It will never be important to them if it isn’t important to their constituents.

  2. Forget about the pipeline owners & their lack of public transparency. Terrorist Alert! It wouldn’t take much for a terrorist on a recreational boat, seemingly out for a day of fishing, to jump overboard with scuba gear and an explosive device timed to detonate well after he’s left the area. This pipeline is in relatively shallow water near both shorelines and less than 100 ft depth somewhat off shore. Well within recreational diver depths. This type of attack is easily performed, with little to no oversight from any agencies. A medium size go-fast boat could easily get the perpetrators back to their marina in Port Huron or even Lk St Clair, well before the detonation even made news. However, the impact of an Oil Spill to the Great Lakes would be devastating for our drinking water supply for years to come, not to mention, the devastation to our economic infrastructure & wildlife. It’s been reported that 30 MILLION US Residents depend on the Great Lakes for their daily drinking water supply. Enbridge claims to have the ability to shut down the flow remotely, but yet it took over 17 hours, and a motorist call to 911 in Kalamazoo to get that to happen.

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