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Dire Straits – Crude Oil under the Great Lakes – what will the Courts do about a 61+ year old pipeline?

2 Oct 2015

pipelineEnbridge (the operator of the pipeline that leaked into the Kalamazoo River in 2010) has been assuring the State that there is no reason to worry about its pipelines under the Straights of Mackinac.  A 2014 University of Michigan report concluded that because of mixed currents, within 20 days of a spill from one of the two pipelines, oil would cover a roughly 50 mile stretch between Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to the West and as far Southeast as Rogers City in Lake Huron.  This news catalyzed an effort by the State to review its 62 year old agreement allowing the two pipelines which reportedly carry some 23 million gallons of oil under the Straits of Mackinac each day.

In June a state panel issued a 64-page Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force Report which expressed unease with Enbridge’s assertion it could use the pipelines forever.  The report concluded that the Task Force had “inadequate information at this time to fully evaluate the risks.”   The Task Force recommended independent studies of the risks, alternatives for the safe transport of oil, and an accounting of the costs of responding to a spill from Enbridge Line 5 (the pipelines that flow under the Straits.

It seems as if Michigan’s regulators are not so willing to take Enbridge at its word.  The Attorney General has begun asking Enbridge for documentation and re-requesting when he does not get everything he asked for.  Enbridge appears to have jumped at the change to sign an agreement not to pump heavy crude (the problem in the 2010 spill) through the Straits without giving the State 180 days notice. This cost them nothing as they weren’t using the pipelines for heavy crude and had no plans to do so.  This gave the Task Force the chance to check the first item off its “to do list.”  Enbridge also rushed into place a “dress rehearsal” for a spill which made the front pages of the newspapers. Of course, this exercise was planned and Enbridge’s vendors themselves admit that in some cases equipment would have to be brought from Detroit – a 5 hour car trip in good weather.

While the federal government largely controls pipeline operations, the State’s negotiators in the 1950’s did an OK job with the easement they drafted (see here). The easement has some shortcomings like a bond of $100,000 and a flat insurance amount of $1 Million and no reopeners for changed regulations but it also requires the pipeline to “eliminate any oil or substance which may escape” from a leak or break and to indemnify the State from all damages or losses and the insurance required must be acceptable to the State covering the pipeline’s liability.  Particularly in light of the recent Volkswagen environmental scandal, it seems as if Michigan is taking its environmental stewardship of the Great Lakes even more seriously than usual.  The problem is that unless there is some evidence of a breach of the easement’s standards (as has been alleged regarding the spacing of the pipeline supports) or an imminent threat of a release, there isn’t much that State regulators can do.

While the easement gives the State some say over what Enbridge does, ultimately,  Michigan and federal law will  apply.  As noted by the Task Force, Michigan law gives the State a lot of power after there’s been a spill from a pipeline but not nearly as much over a threatened spill.  The law allows the State to step up and deal with a “threat of release” but there are precious few cases explaining what that means.  When dealing with a “threat” – even one with consequences as potentially huge as a release into the Straits of Mackinac, the Courts have demanded  quite a bit before granting any sort of injunctive relief.  It’s fair to say that unless the pipeline actually begins to leak, there is almost nothing the Courts will do under Michigan law except to hold Enbridge to the somewhat vague terms of a 60+ year old easement.

 

 

What do Tom Brady and every dispute with an environmental agency have in common?

13 May 2015

 A friend of mine recently pointed out that if Tom Brady appeals the punishment against him, the process is spelled out in the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (see here). Buried at Article 46 (between injury protection and union security), is the process for appealing a sanction by the Commissioner.  For appeals of everything other than unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct (which have a slightly different, slightly more pro-player process), the Commissioner, after consulting with Union’s Executive Director, appoints one or more hearing officers. If that seems to unfairly stack the deck against Brady, well, you’re not alone in that opinion.

However, Tom Brady isn’t alone in this situation.  Before a company or person “aggrieved” by an agency decision may appeal that decision to the Courts, typically, she must “exhaust” her administrative remedies and process and create a record for review by the Courts. So, if your permit has been pulled or conditions have been imposed on you that you think are unfair, before you ever get to see a judge, you must, in Michigan, typically proceed through what’s called a “contested case.” Under the  Michigan Administrative Procedures Act,  the agency itself or one or 1 or more hearing officers designated and authorized by the agency to handle contested cases, are required to be the presiding officer in a contested case. While the law does say that hearings are to be conducted impartially, it does seem odd that an employee of the agency whose decision one is appealing gets to sit in judgment on that appeal and is the one to control the making of an administrative record that a court would review.

While the hearing officer in Tom Brady’s case results from a negotiated agreement, it does seem that foxes guarding the henhouses is the order of the day and some are only now realizing that perhaps we should reconsider what looks like a fair process on the surface appears skewed when one scratches only a little below the surface.

What will be the top stories of 2015?

23 Jan 2015

edit_calendar_ssk_47433454Happy new year!  I know it’s almost February but as this is my first blog post of the year, I thought (particularly after hearing the State of the Union and the State of the State speeches)  I’d predict the big stories of 2015 in no particular order:

  • Wetland Rules – the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finally proposed rules in 2014  to address the fallout of the Rapanos case.  The proposal was met with a firestorm of disapproval, particularly from the farming world.  Will they ever finalize them?
  • Brownfield TIF Legislation – after all that work last year, will the Legislature take up streamlining this program and expanding it to allow Michigan to be even more competitive in redeveloping brownfields?
  • EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules vs. Congress – in September, 2013, EPA issued a proposal for carbon pollution from new power plants; in June  2014, EPA issued a proposal to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants – the GOP and coal and oil interests in Congress have fought this for some time.  Will the rules be adopted and enforced?  Will there be enough time for electricity generators to get alternative plans in place before being forced to shutter their oldest, least efficient and most polluting plants?
  • Keystone Pipeline – President Obama and Congress have been locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline for almost 3 years now – he seemed to indicate in the State of the Union that he’d veto legislation – will he?
  • Energy Policy – Governor Snyder has pushed for an energy policy, legislation is expected this year and the Governor recently mentioned an intention to develop a new energy agency that would make Michigan more competitive for business.  What that will entail in light of the likely changes due to federal regulations will be interesting to see – will Michigan upgrade or discard its renewable portfolio standard? Can Michigan reduce electrical cost while improving both reliability and environmental performance?
  • Water Policy – the Governor’s long-awaited great lakes policy is expected this year.
  • Pipelines – in addition to the Keystone pipeline, there has been a lot of interest in pipelines in, under and around the Great Lakes – could there be federal and state changes there?
  • Detroit’s Water Authority – it is supposed to morph into a regional authority – as I said previously, the easy part was getting to the agreement last year – will the hard work succeed or will it fail, causing major shockwaves for roughly half of the State’s population?

CSI Part II – MDEQ rolls out brownfield tax increment financing proposal – five major changes you should know about

11 Nov 2014

moneyAs you may recall from this spring, I was asked to serve on MDEQ’s initiative to  review and improve the “patchwork quilt” of statutes and rules regarding brownfield redevelopment incentives, grants and loans.  A CSI II group (of which, in full disclosure, I chaired the Legislative Committee) met regularly over the Spring and Summer and MDEQ has announced two meetings (see the attached flyer) to roll out the proposed changes. These changes have not yet been introduced in the Legislature and thus, are currently only an MDEQ internal recommendation. The hope is that these changes will be introduced shortly.

if passed, these proposed changes should streamline, simplify and speed up the process for loan, grant and TIF approvals to enable projects to get started faster than ever before while supporting a greater range of eligible activities than previously available.

There was some tension between those championing redevelopment and those focusing on environmental remediation but ultimately, there was agreement on a set of changes and clarification of the rules and statutes to clarify the process for obtaining loans, grants and tax increment financing for brownfield redevelopment.  The five most significant changes include: (more…)

Lake Erie – so is it Ohio’s fault?

22 Aug 2014

t1_11246_1533_LakeErie_143_250mThe recent shutdown of Toledo’s water system due to an algal toxin in the water caught everyone’s attention.  Our friends at Dragun note that the Toledo water problem was triggered by some odd weather, but the algal source problem remains out there.   The MDEQ announced this month a five point plan to protect the lake: (more…)

Toilet to Tap? I don’t see overcoming the “ick” factor any time soon

2 Jun 2014

drinking_waterAs drought conditions settle in across much of the United States, some communities are beginning to look at the concept of “water reuse,” which sounds very conservationist.  Generally it means so-called “grey water” reuse where water that’s been used once (such as for laundry or car washes) is reused for other non-potable purposes. It also means the capture of rainwater for irrigation (think the barrels that some people have at the end of their downspouts). (more…)

But they already did a phase I….

2 May 2014

cautionWhen a seller or lender gives a prospective buyer a phase I environmental site assessment (ESA) and it concludes there are no recognized environmental concerns, that means you’re “good to go,” right? Well, not so fast.  There are some things to check on which include:

1.  When was the ESA performed and to what standard?  Standards have changed over the years and if the ESA is 6 months old or older, parts of it will need to be updated.  Sometimes ESAs done for lenders don’t include all the elements a buyer must include to satisfy the All Appropriate Inquiry standard.  It is also possible for much older ESAs, that circumstances may have changed and you’re better served just starting over.

2.  For whom was the ESA prepared and can you rely on it?  Most ESAs were prepared for a specific client and often include a limit on who can “use” them.  There’s no certainty on whether a use limit actually prevents you from relying on an ESA to assert the innocent landowner defense but it is likely that such a limit would prevent you from seeking recourse from the consultant that prepared it, if it turns out to be inadequate.

3. Even if you can rely on it, will the consultant stand behind it?  Often, consultants will “let” you rely on their old ESAs for a fee.  The question to ask is – is it worth it? I have seen consultants attempt to contractually limit their exposure to $50,000 or their available insurance or their fee whichever is less!  I have also seen consultants say that they will only be liable for direct losses and will not be liable for so-called consequential losses such as lost value or revenue.  This means that the consultant will only be liable for the actual harm (breaking things or hurting people) they cause and not for any errors or oversights they make in actually doing their work!

In short, there are many pitfalls to relying on a so-called “clean” prior phase I and the list above only scratches the surface.  We still live in a caveat emptor world and you, as buyer, need to take steps to beware.