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.

 

 

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