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Michigan Pipelines Under Review

29 Oct 2014


Spills from pipelines were very newsy over the last couple of years.  There was the Kalamzoo River oil spill and a number elsewhere.  As with most things, eventually the public and news media tire of it and move on to something else.  A recent Indiana spill into Lake Michigan barely made any news.  Interestingly, this summer, the State of Michigan created a Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force to review issues relating to pipelines transporting petroleum products around the State.  Despite federal jurisdiction by the  federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Task Force is looking at issues including:

  • Michigan’s emergency management preparedness for spills,
  • Coordination of permitting issues for pipeline upgrades and replacement, and
  • The creation of a state website to serve as an information clearinghouse for residents who have questions or concerns about pipelines.

The Task Force’s members are Co-Chairs: Dan Wyant, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Bill Schuette, Michigan Attorney General, and John Quackenbush,  Michigan Public Service Commission, Keith Creagh, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Jon Allan, DEQ’s Office of the Great Lakes, Kirk Steudle, Michigan Department of Transportation and Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, Michigan State Police.

As Michigan is looking at pipeline risks and preparedness, so should you.


Now this is smart…..

1 Jul 2014

smart meter; smart grid technology

Smart Meter

The grid gets smarter.  In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just before they send Richard Dreyfus out in the middle of the night, there’s a short scene in a control room where the power company management are discussing where the power outages are and where to deploy their repairmen (hence Richard’s close encounter). (more…)

Cars – it’s back to the future

26 Jun 2014

1000px-SIGN_OF_THE_PAST_IS_THIS_ABANDONED_GASOLINE_PUMP_WITH_A_PRICE_OF_29.9_CENTS_PER_GALLON._THE_COST_OF_FUEL_HAS_MADE..._-_NARA_-_555508When I was growing up, there was leaded gasoline and that is what fueled cars. Some 60-70 years before that, when the automobile was new, there were many different kinds of fuels – steam, gasoline, diesel and even electric.   Now we have diesel, unleaded, E85, natural gas, biodiesel, battery powered and hybrids.

Even more interesting are the reports that Toyota will be introducing a long-anticipated hydrogen fuel cell powered car where the only byproduct would be water. I remember President Bush touting this as the fuel of the future some 8 or more years ago.  It will be interesting to see if he turns out to be right.

Either way, battery powered cars and/or hybrids are “picking up steam.”  Lincoln is offering the hybrid MKZ for the same price as it gasoline powered version. Elon Musk is working on a gigantic factory to drive down the price of lithium ion batteries for his Tesla electric cars. Finally, we are reading about a new aluminum-air battery which may allow a car to go up to 1,000 miles on a single charge.  Now that would be a giant leap forward. Not quite Doc Brown’s “Mr. Fusion” or the Jetsons’ flying car but we’re getting there.

Climate change and infrastructure

27 May 2014

bumperstickerAfter that 100 year winter we just came out of, and the potholes it left behind, everyone seems to be talking about infrastructure.  Even the Michigan Legislature and Chamber of Commerce are supporting tax increases to support road and bridge repairs.  While potholes are annoying, sinkholes and bridge failures can be some pretty serious stuff, as has been recently reported.   President Obama has also spoken recently about infrastructure investment as he asks Congress to appropriate additional highway funds.

There has also been a slew of recent news about climate change including a national assessment report and reports of major antarctic melting.  Given all this news, our investments in infrastructure should take climate change into account. We all know about freeze-thaw and the havoc it can wreak on our roads and bridges. With weather becoming less predictable and more extreme, as we rebuild our infrastructure, we certainly need to think about doing it right the first time including:

  • Designing tougher, more resilient, lower maintenance roadways, bridges, facilities and roadsides;
  • Incorporating materials which will perform more consistently in weather extremes;
  • Better controls of runoff including pavement redesign and strengthening drain, river and stream banks and ditches to prevent erosion;
  • Stronger and lower maintenance bridge design;
  • Changes in roadside vegetation to ensure survival and water uptake during floods as well as drought and erosion resiliency;
  • Larger capacity pumps/pump stations to prevent freeway flooding; and
  • Better sewer and water lines to prevent failures as we experience more freeze-thaw, deeper frosts and drought conditions.

While the east and west coasts are expected to take the biggest climate-based hit (think Katrina, Sandy and California droughts and wildfires) drought, higher temperatures and stronger storm events threaten roads and we have already seen Great Lakes levels impact shipping and commerce.  A recent government report discussed the likely impacts on energy infrastructure including:

  • increased demands for electricity;
  • greater stress on the grid as we experience stronger storms; and
  • power plants’ vulnerability to water shortages.

From roads to utility lines, water lines and sewers, we are on the cusp of a brave new world.  I, for one, think that if we are about to invest billions in putting Michigan back together after many decades of neglect, we ought to do it with our eyes on the future and do it right the first time.  If that costs more, it will be worth it in failures and crises avoided down the road and will provide a base from which Michigan’s economy can grow.

Pipelines – Making an example: Enbridge and the Feds

12 May 2014

pipelineThe Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is not through making an example of Enbridge over the Kalamazoo River spill.  The EPA and NTSB have both weighed in on the spill and now the PHMSA has hauled them to the “front of the class” to make an example of them to all other pipeline companies in the nation.
The overall message is one of continuous self-evaluation and improvement – something that PHMSA appears to think that Enbridge did not do.  In a recent Federal Register Notice, the PHMSA said that other pipeline operators can learn from Enbridge’s experience including:

Integrity Management
Operators must understand the unique attributes of their pipeline systems to have a robust IM program to match and use the right tools, set the proper assessment schedule and identify additional measures needed to protect pipeline integrity. The PHMSA also says that operators must go beyond simply assessing pipeline segments and repairing defects by implementing a continuous risk analysis and reassessment process. This means taking lessons learned on one pipeline, including those lessons learned by vendors, and applying them to every other pipeline.

Control Center Operations
Control room teams must be trained as teams to recognize and respond to emergency and unexpected conditions. If an operator suffers an unexplained loss of product, the PHMSA says that the operator should shut down the affected pipeline until the problem is resolved. Operators should additionally assess the performance of their leak detection system following a product release and identify and implement appropriate improvements.

Public Awareness Programs
Operators are to periodically self assess and evaluate the effectiveness of their public awareness programs and whether local emergency response agencies are prepared to identify and respond to early indications of a spill which can help minimize a spill’s impacts.

The PHMSA’s message is half “post-mortem” and half warning to the regulated community that they better step up their game. One would suspect that the next pipeline failure will be in for more severe treatment than Enbridge because, after all, the PHMSA warned them in May of 2014.

On the other side, the PHMSA got its own comeuppance on Friday as the Department of Transportation Auditor General released its own report concluding that the PHMSA’s State evaluators missed many  instances of non-compliance. The audit recommended changes to PHMSA’s program including regular reviews and analysis of what the States are doing and including:

  •  Revising the PHMSA staffing formula to account for risks and non-standard conditions requiring inspections;
  • Develop minimum training standards for State inspector qualifications, including standards for times all inspection types and improve PHMSA training so that federal staff can be sure the States are properly conducting their inspections;
  • Develop procedures to annually review the adequacy of inspection procedures;
  • Provide comprehensive guidance to ensure States effectively implement PHMSA’s risk analysis methods for inspection scheduling.

In short, while PHMSA called out Enbridge as an example to other pipelines, the DOT called on PHMSA to do even more to ensure that the States are policing pipelines more vigorously.

Climate change adaptation; don’t put all your bananas in one basket

28 Apr 2014

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Climate change seems to be in the press pretty much all the time these days.  There are stories about the UN reports on climate change (see also here); the President has a two-pronged plan (attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events) and, recently, the President requested $1 Billion in the 2015 Budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that as the climate changed, three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns.  The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.

Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana that most of us buy at the grocery store is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus.   You might say that this is alarmist non-sense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out.  However, you’d be wrong – it happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten.  These bananas were reportedly in every way superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety.  This is an example of the risk of  cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable – the same sort of mass production technique that led to the potato blight and famine in Ireland.

Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify – something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.  Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana (there are still hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States)?  Will we find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted but less well known superfoods of quinoa, freekeh, or teff?  Time will tell, but one thing seems certain, greater diversity leads to greater resilience.  This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address.

Change is hard – with great technology comes great upheaval

23 Apr 2014


For the last 60 – 70 years, we have lived in an era of significant stability.  That seems to be over.  We’ve all seen how the internet has changed certain businesses (music, newspapers and bookstores).  Technology can be a huge boon but it can be quite disruptive.

The transition from gasoline to electric or hybrid vehicles has been somewhat bumpy as governing bodies struggle with whether dealerships are required and how to pay for roads when less (or no) gasoline will be used.  This is a growing issue as more electric and hybrid vehicles take to the road and as the condition of our Michigan roads continues to cry out for repairs.

As I’ve blogged about before, recent rhetoric suggests that Oakland and Macomb Counties may declare their independence from the DWSD.  With both counties now spending money to evaluate their options, what happens next is less clear. Given that DWSD has apparently not set its rates high enough to cover all the infrastructure improvements needed over the next 5 – 10 years, it is possible (although perhaps unlikely) that a Macomb-Oakland system might actually cost less to develop, construct and operate than the DWSD system.  Such a separation could lead the DWSD to owning over-sized water and waste treatment systems relative to their customer base and the oldest waste and water lines which are likely most in need of repair.  Given DWSD’s well publicized collection issues, this has to be making the investment community nervous as reflected in two investment firms’ recent subpoenas.  This much turmoil would seem to make the DWSD’s recent RFP less appealing than usual.

as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess

Finally (for the moment), we have seen many advances in the development of solar energy – some of which we’ve discussed on this blog – while those are exciting, they, like changes to gas driven cars and changes to 100+ years of centralized water and sewer systems, challenge the status quo.  For over 75 years, utilities have generated and supplied the electricity and natural gas that we consume in our homes and businesses from centralized points. As part of the deal, those same utilities have maintained the infrastructure needed to both generate and transmit gas and electricity.  So, what happens when people can start generating electricity on their own roofs?  Some hail it as a triple win (saving money, the environment and societal benefits) but most solar generators stay “on the grid” and as a result sometimes are contributing electricity to the grid and other times are drawing on the grid.  Under most systems, including Michigan’s, smaller generators can sell their electricity back to the grid at the utility’s retail price – so called “net metering.”

The ability to sell excess power back at the retail -not wholesale- price, raises the question of who pays for the infrastructure necessary to provide the electricity to those on the grid.  Utilities argue that those installing solar are not paying their “fair share” of such costs.  There are those who say that the price of electric service includes roughly 50% for non-generation expenses.  Some experts argue that there is no such “cost-shifting” occurring because there are savings on power plants, transmissions lines, lost energy as well as the ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals without utilities having to make the capital investment.  This is a tough debate and is not something easily reduced to 60 second soundbites and at present is being decided on a state by state basis.

Ultimately, the challenge of existing infrastructure combined with legacy costs makes the transition in technology and improving efficiency much harder and far more political than a “free market” would prefer.  But, as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess.