Great Lakes Pipeline Dispute Highlights a Broader Energy Dilemma
By Douglas Bessette
A deal involving an aging oil pipeline in Michigan reflects the complex decisions communities across the country need to make to balance the needs for energy and safety with efforts to deal with climate change.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Enbridge, a Canadian company, have reached an agreement over a leak-prone pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, the four-mile-long waterway that divides Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
Rather than shut the 65-year-old pipeline down altogether, as environmentalists are demanding, or conduct routine maintenance, as Enbridge desired, Snyder is requiring Enbridge to replace the pipeline at an estimated cost of up to $500 million without a deadline.
While the lakes, beaches and livelihoods vulnerable to harm from a potential spill are perhaps unique to Michigan, the question of what to do about a host of aging pipelines across the U.S. is not. Nearly half of the nation's pipelines currently operating were built before 1960.
Amid rising oil and gas production, there are hard compromises to make between ensuring an adequate energy supply, protecting public safety, and reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels—a key contributor to climate change. But my research suggests that there may be a straightforward way for both decision-makers and the public to make these choices.
Millions of Miles
Approximately 3 million miles of pipelines move crude oil, natural gas and other hazardous liquids across the U.S. Most crude oil pipelines traversing the center of the country transport oil from western Canada and North Dakota southward to refineries in Texas and Louisiana.
More of the natural gas pipelines that span the county are concentrated around the Marcellus Shale formation, in eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania. And 60 percent of the 319,000 miles of pipelines currently transporting natural gas were installed before 1970.
Compared to hauling fuel by rail or truck, the Transportation Research Board, a nonprofit that serves as an advisory body to the White House, Congress and federal agencies, considers pipelines to be safer. Yet when pipeline accidents do occur, they are typically larger and impact the environment more directly than the alternatives.
When a natural gas line exploded in Massachusetts, where many pipes are over 100 years old, it destroyed 80 homes and killed one person. In 2012, another pipeline operated by the same company—Columbia Gas, this one built in 1967, exploded.
That earlier accident in Sissonville, West Virginia, charred 800 feet of roadway along a nearby highway, wrecking three homes, and melted the siding on houses hundreds of feet away. Following an investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board found many causes. Among them: corrosion and a lack of automatic or remote shutoff valves.
In 2010, one of Enbridge's Michigan pipelines ruptured, spilling 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. That pipeline was built in the 1960s, and made with the sorts of welding processes and protective coverings that have not stood the test of time. The cost to clean up that spill was more than $1 billion and spurred concerns among Michiganders over the safety of the Straits pipeline.
A big spill in the Straits of Mackinac could result in oil polluting over 1,200 miles of shoreline, cause $1.3 billion in damage and cost $500 million to clean up, Michigan Technological University researchers estimate.
Following an independent risk analysis, Snyder and Enbridge agreed that a replacement pipeline should be placed inside a tunnel and buried beneath the lakebed. Taking that step would substantially reduce the risk of a spill. But it will also take at least seven years to build. And the agreement assumes the Straits pipeline would continue to operate during the new pipeline's construction.
There's one good reason why old and dangerous pipelines aren't being shut down: the emergence of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—the process by which water, sand and chemicals are injected underground at high pressures to crack rock and release the oil and gas trapped inside.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, building the pipelines to accommodate this increase in output would require annual investments between $12-19 billion. A 2008 report prepared for the Edison Foundation predicted that modernizing the national oil and gas transmission and distribution network would cost $900 billion before 2030.
As the battles over the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines have shown, opposition to new long-term fossil fuel infrastructure projects is growing. Replacing old dangerous pipelines with new ones is not easy—or fast, even if it might reduce risks and carbon emissions.
There is also growing evidence, such as the latest report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that instead of a bigger and better pipeline network, the U.S. needs a new energy strategy, aimed at ending reliance on fossil fuels altogether by 2050. The problem is that once pipelines are built, they typically last decades. Building new ones would further lock in dependence on fossil fuels.
A recent poll shows that a majority of Americans support aggressive action on global warming. But smaller numbers back some of the specific policies or actions that might take.
As my research suggests, adopting a more comprehensive and logical process for making decisions could provide a way forward. This process helps communities identify their most important objectives first and then evaluate options according to those specific goals. It's an approach that ensures that what's most important—climate change, jobs and protecting ecosystems, for instance—gets addressed.
It could become handy the next time a state and a corporation tangle over whether or not to replace a big aging pipeline–even when this debate is less contentious than the one about Michigan's Straits of Mackinac.
Great Lakes 'At Risk' From Plan to Replace Aging Enbridge Pipelines, Environmentalists Argue https://t.co/etUxGvlp0x— The YEARS Project (@The YEARS Project)1538750901.0
Douglas Bessette is an assistant professor of community sustainability at Michigan State University.
Disclosure statement: Douglas Bessette does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the estimated cost to replace the pipeline to be $500 billion in the third paragraph. The correct figure is $500 million.
This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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