The other worrysome pipeline


The Other Pipeline You Should Worry About
It’s Not Just Keystone XL, It’s Also Line 61

JANUARY 16, 2015
WHILE the ire of environmental activists remains fixed on the Keystone XL pipeline, a potentially greater threat looms in the proposed expansion of Line 61, a pipeline running the length of Wisconsin carrying tar sands crude. The pipeline is owned by Enbridge, a $40 billion Canadian company, which has been responsible for several hundred spills in the past decade, including one in 2010 near Marshall, Mich., reportedly the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in American history.

Enbridge is seeking to increase Line 61’s capacity threefold, making it a third larger than the projected Keystone XL. The last real line of defense against this expansion is an obscure zoning committee in Dane County, Wis., which is scheduled to meet on Jan. 27 to decide whether to attach conditions to Enbridge’s permit for a new pump station. Voting to do so would risk a lawsuit from Enbridge, which maintains that the county has no legal right to impose such conditions.

While the fight over Keystone XL has involved millions of dollars in advertising, the arrests of many activists outside the White House and the direct engagement of President Obama, Enbridge’s plans have received little national attention. This is a glaring example of how environmental policy with transnational impacts can be pushed at the state level without attracting great scrutiny.

Line 61, built in 2007, moves 400,000 barrels of tar sands and lighter conventional crude oil a day from Superior, Wis., in the state’s far north, to refineries in Metropolitan Chicago or, through a network of connecting pipelines, to the Gulf Coast. Enbridge wants to increase that, in stages, to 1.2 million barrels per day.

Despite this enormous change in capacity, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has mandated just a single public hearing. That hearing, held last year, was for an air quality permit and was devoted solely to the impact of constructing storage tanks in Superior. The D.N.R. maintains that a 2006 environmental assessment addresses concerns over the safety of Line 61’s expansion.

That analysis took place four years before Enbridge’s largest spill, in July 2010, which flooded the Kalamazoo River near Marshall with more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands crude and cost the company $1.2 billion to clean up. The cost exceeded the cap on Enbridge’s liability insurance by nearly $600 million. (The company paid the difference.)

The Marshall spill demonstrated how much more destructive tar sands crude spills are compared with spills of lighter crude. To move through a pipeline, tar sands ore needs to be mixed with chemical solvents. When the spilled mixture was exposed to air, the chemical components, including carcinogenic benzene, separated and released toxic gases, which forced many people to evacuate their homes. Meanwhile, the heavier tar sands sank, which required a destructive dredging of the Kalamazoo River.

Although Enbridge completed the cleanup effort last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency asserts that oil remains in the Kalamazoo River. In a scathing 2012 assessment of the Marshall spill, the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency tasked with investigating pipeline accidents, detailed unconscionable lapses in Enbridge’s response.

Line 61’s opponents are focused on Enbridge’s need for new pump stations, which require a conditional use permit from many of the counties in which they are built. Enbridge has secured these permits from each of these counties except Dane.

At the meeting on Jan. 27, Dane County’s five-member Zoning and Land Regulation Committee is scheduled to vote on Enbridge’s permit. The committee is considering whether to require Enbridge to carry a more comprehensive — and expensive — kind of liability insurance than it had during the Marshall spill. While county governments cannot override federal or state law, there is some precedent for attaching financial requirements to permits.

Opponents believe that if Enbridge is forced to buy insurance to cover a Marshall-size spill, the price of expansion could become too onerous. In November, however, three lawyers representing Enbridge met privately with a few county officials, including Patrick Miles, the chairman of Dane County’s zoning committee, and presented a white paper outlining the company’s position that the county does not have the legal right to attach insurance requirements to its permit. Mr. Miles said the implication was clear: The company would sue if need be.

Since the Marshall spill, the company has built a new command center in Edmonton and invested $4 billion dollars in maintenance, emergency response and other safety improvements. Despite all this, 4,000 gallons of tar sands crude spilled last January from the Alberta Clipper, the pipeline feeding Line 61.

Even with the dropping price of oil, Enbridge remains committed to Line 61’s expansion. Local officials like Mr. Miles have limited legal and financial means to challenge companies such as Enbridge. A more effective approach would be a policy, coordinated between the governments of Canada and the United States, that assessed the cumulative effects of new pipelines and tar sands production on the environment. But given the current political climate, such an agreement is unlikely anytime soon.

Dane County’s principled concerns over Line 61’s expansion suggest an alternative, if imperfect, model. If a majority of the committee votes to attach conditions to the county’s permit, and they prevail in any court battle, their victory would provide an important precedent to local governments across the country. Even if they lose, they will have helped raise public awareness about the high costs, both local and planetary, endemic to tar sands crude.

Dan Kaufman is a writer and musician.

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